Gay and bisexual children are more likely to be bullied as they are growing up, and a new study suggests that victimization may occur at an early age, before some of those targeted are aware of their sexual orientation.
In the first large U.S. study to look at the problem, public school students in three cities were asked about bullying in the 5th, 7th and 10th grades. When they reached high school, they were asked if they identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. The researchers then looked back at what those kids had said through the years about their experiences being hit, threatened, called names, or excluded.
Overall, many of the nearly 4,300 students surveyed said they were bullied, especially at younger ages, according to the study, which was published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine. But the 630 gay and bisexual children suffered it more.
The researchers found 13 percent of them were bullied on a weekly basis in 5th grade, compared to 8 percent of other kids. In both groups, the rates went down as the students got older — but the disparity persisted.
“In fifth grade, they already were bullied more than other kids” even though, at that young age, many gay and bisexual kids haven't discovered their own sexual orientation yet, said the lead author of the study, Dr. Mark Schuster of Boston Children's Hospital.
The data doesn't say why each kid was targeted. But most were likely picked on for being “different,” he said.
“Some kids may be considered by the bullies to be a more girlish boy, or a more boyish girl,” said Schuster.
The pattern reflects what was reported in an earlier study of teens in England. The current research drew from an ongoing study of health behaviors and health risks in Houston, Los Angeles, and Birmingham, Alabama.
The differences in bullying and victimization occurring as early as fifth grade is one of the study's most interesting findings, said Michelle Birkett, a research scientist at the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“Some kids do come out that young or know very early, but some don't,” said Birkett, who was not involved in the new research.
She said for bullied or victimized kids, finding supportive people is important. Those can include peers, trusted adults such as family members, or people at school.
“No matter what the reason you're getting bullied, it's important that it's taken seriously,” Birkett said.
Other research has found gay and bisexual high school students are more likely than their heterosexual classmates to attempt suicide or do risky things like smoke and drink alcohol.
In an earlier study, Schuster and his colleagues found that the longer a child is bullied, the more severe and lasting the effect on the kid's health. Bullying is linked to depression and feelings of lower self-worth, Schuster said.
“At one time, bullying was brushed off as ‘kids will be kids and that's just part of going through childhood,’” he said. But he said it's more than a little teasing — the consequences can be “persistent and serious.”
Schuster said parents can look for bruises or scratches that don't have an obvious cause, or see if their children are anxious, depressed or avoiding school or the school bus.
Parents should also set good examples at home, he said. For example, parents shouldn't mock or make fun of lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals, because they may unknowingly make their children feel rejected.
“For the kids who aren't sexual minorities, it's also sending a message that it's OK to mock people who are gay,” Schuster said.