The text message flashes on the iPhone. The girl’s smile disappears as she reads: “I KNOW ALL ABOUT YOU, YOU DYKE.” She looks at the other students in the school hallway. What are they thinking? What are they saying?
This is not a scene from “Pretty Little Liars.” Studies show that bullying online, through social media networks and in text messages, is pervasive – and LGBT youth are more likely to be targets than other kids.
New research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network shows that LGBT youth experience three times as much bullying and harassment online as other kids. Although the research found that LGBT youth find greater peer support, access to critical information and connect with the larger community online, it also linked cyber bullying to lower grade-point averages and diminished self-esteem.
The study, “Out Online,” examined the experiences of LGBT youth in the digital world through a national survey of more than 5,600 students in grades 6–12.
The research showed that about 42 percent of LGBT youth have been bullied or harassed online compared with 15 percent of non-LGBT youth. Researchers also found that LGBT youth are twice as likely as other youth to say they’ve been bullied via text message.
One in four LGBT youth has been bullied online because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and one in five has experienced anti-LGBT harassment in a text message.
The study also revealed that one in four LGBT youth has been sexually harassed online, and LGBT youth are three times as likely as other kids to be sexually harassed via text message.
LGBT kids told GLSEN’s researchers that they’re just as likely to feel unsafe in the digital or cyber realm as at school or on a school bus.
HELPING TO COPE
But researchers also found positives in the number of young people online and the resources readily available there to kids.
“The Internet does not serve to simply reinforce the negative dynamics found offline regarding bullying and harassment,” said Michele Ybarra, the president of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research. “Rather, this technology also offers LGBT youth critical tools for coping with these negative experiences, including access to understanding and accepting friends, and exposure to health information that is unavailable elsewhere.”
“Out Online” showed that about 81 percent of LGBT youth turn to the Internet to find health information, about 76 percent have gone online to promote a cause and 51 percent have used the Internet to engage in a community event.
Moreover, about half of LGBT youth have made at least one close friend or confidante online.
“The Internet impacts almost all aspects of our lives, but is particularly entrenched in the lives of youth, who are the most connected people online in society,” GLSEN executive director Eliza Byard said. “LGBT youth continue to face extraordinary obstacles in their day-to-day lives, whether at school or online, but the Internet can be a valuable source of information and support when they have no one or nowhere else left to turn to. As social media evolve, so must our efforts to serve LGBT youth to ensure their safety, health and well-being.”
Byard and other policymakers, along with educators, parents and students, are discussing bullying as the 2013–14 school year begins.
The national PTA is advising parents to learn to use the technologies their kids are using, to be interested in their kids’ friends and activities – online or offline – and to ask about any changes in behavior.
The National Education Association is encouraging members to engage in its Stand Up to Bullying campaign.
Meanwhile, LGBT youth groups, including a number of gay-straight alliances in Wisconsin, are training student leaders who can stand up for themselves and help others. Madison’s GSAFE in Madison held its Leadership Institute Training camp in mid-August, bringing together 40 students from throughout the state to spend four days building community, gaining leadership skills, and learning how to make their schools safer and more just for all students.
Also, many school districts around the nation are preparing anti-bullying campaigns. Wisconsin public schools will observe Bullying Awareness Day on Sept. 25.
And the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights recently announced it would begin collecting information on LGBT bullying in schools across the country.
Still, reformers continue to call for stronger legislation to protect LGBT students. Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, introduced the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013. The comprehensive legislation would reauthorize and update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and incorporate provisions in the proposed Safe Schools Improvement and the Student Non-Discrimination acts.
The legislation would ensure that states and school districts develop and implement anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies that include all students, report incidents of bullying and harassment to the Justice Department and formally establish a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools.
“We are thrilled that the Senate is moving to address the long overdue issue of school bullying and harassment,” Byard said. “This bill includes critical components to ensure safer learning environments.”
Twitter counter: GLSEN’s thinkb4youspeak.com Twitter Counter tracks the number of times in a day, week and month that anti-gay slurs are tweeted. In July, “fag” was tweeted 835,560 times; “dyke,” 85,560 times, “so gay,” 304,920.