Bisexuals also reported being victims of bullying more often, while bisexual girls were more likely to be bullies themselves and gay males were much less likely to bully others.
The findings, from a 2001 survey of 7,559 children of female registered nurses, do not prove that being gay or bisexual directly causes people to be bullied or to turn into bullies. Moreover, the numbers of teens and young adults in some of the sexual-orientation groups studied were very small.
Still, the study suggests the size of the bullying problem and shows that it is not limited to grade school, said study lead author Elise Berlan, M.D., of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Overall, it shows that “kids who are different — who are perceived as weak and falling out of the mainstream — are more vulnerable to bullying.”
According to Berlan, there is little research into bullying and “sexual minority” children and an unmet need to study what might seem obvious: Gay kids will be pushed around.
“It’s really important to have some documentation about what the experiences of our kids are,” she said.
Results for the study participants — children and young adults ages 14 to 22 — appear online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Of 2,720 males, 93.5 percent said they were heterosexual, 4.5 percent said they were mostly heterosexual and 0.5 percent said they were bisexual. The other 1.4 percent said they were mostly or completely homosexual.
Among the 4,839 females, 88.3 percent said they were heterosexual, 9.5 percent said they were mostly heterosexual, 1.9 percent described themselves as bisexual and 0.3 percent said they were mostly or completely heterosexual.
Compared to completely heterosexual kids, all these groups were more likely to have experienced bullying except for bisexual girls. Gay males — those who were mostly or completely gay — had double the risk after researchers adjusted the statistics for factors like age and race.
Before the statistics were adjusted, 44 percent of mostly or completely gay males and 26 percent of completely heterosexual males reported undergoing bullying.
Fifteen females reported being completely or mostly homosexual; they were more than three times more likely to be bullied.
On the other hand, bisexual females were 2.4 times more likely to report bullying others.
Bennett Leventhal, M.D., who studies bullying, said it is not clear if the study adds much to existing research, considering its limitations. Many studies have shown that “different” children and teens are more vulnerable to bullying, said Leventhal, deputy director of the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, N.Y.
Still, the paper does add “a bit” to research that says children who are not entirely heterosexual are at higher risk of bullying, he said.
The small numbers of gay people in the study is typical, according to University of Arizona professor Stephen Russell. “The history of research in this area has been based on very small numbers,” said Russell, who studies bullying and is director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, & Families.
Ultimately, he said, “sexuality matters” when it comes to bullying.
Doctors who are taking care of gay and bisexual kids “should be really asking them about their experiences with violence and bullying, asking how they’re doing with these experiences, if there is anything that we can do to support them,” Berlan said.
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FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Reach the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, at (202) 387-2829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of Adolescent Health: Contact Tor Berg at (415) 502-1373 or email@example.com or visit www.jahonline.org
Berlan ED, et al. Sexual orientation and bullying among adolescents in the Growing Up Today study. J Adolesc Health online, 2010.