Political Controversies Can Inspire Bullying in Schools, Public Health Researchers Say

Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Political controversies that receive heavy media coverage trickle down into classrooms and spark bullying, suggests a new study out this week. It found that children in California reported being bullied more over their sexual orientation during 2008 and 2009—when the contentious Proposition 8, which temporarily prevented same sex marriage in the state, was passed—than before or after those years.

The researchers behind the study, which is published in JAMA Pediatrics, looked at 14 years worth of data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, a statewide survey of K-12 students intended to identify factors that promote (or discourage) flourishing and well-educated kids. In total, they looked at responses from nearly 5 million middle and high school students across more than 5,000 schools in the state.

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One of the survey questions asks students if they’ve experienced bullying recently, and whether this bullying was related to their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. In the 2008-09 school year, the researchers found, 10.8 percent said they had dealt with homophobia from their classmates, compared to 7.6 percent of students who said the same during the 2000-01 school year—a roughly 30 percent increase. At the same time, other forms of bullying generally decreased between those years.

The study can’t definitively prove the debate over Prop 8 led to more homophobic bullying. But given the lack of increased bullying overall and the decline in homophobic bullying after the controversy settled down (the proposition was finally struck down in 2013, following a lengthy legal battle, and same-sex marriage was legalized completely in the U.S. in 2015), the authors’ circumstantial case seems plenty strong.

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“We think that young people don’t hear what adults and lawmakers are talking about, but they do,” study senior author Stephen Russell, chair of the Human Development and Family Sciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin, said in a press statement. “The data show quite distinctly that homophobic bullying peaked in California at the time of the Proposition 8 discussion.”

Russell and his co-authors said that their research highlights the subtle impacts that ongoing political battles can have on kids. Other research elsewhere has suggested that Latino parents have felt especially stressed out in the wake of the Trump administration’s ramping up of its deportation policy, including family separations at the border, and that this stress has affected the conversations they have with their children.

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“Policies and campaigns related to Black Lives Matter, bathroom bills, immigration—these can be concerning, both in the way they play out in bullying in particular, but also how it affects the health and well-being of youth,” Russell said. “The public health consequences of this kind of moment we’re in, with these very contentious and media-driven discussions, are more important than we knew.”

There are ways schools can better protect marginalized kids. In the case of the current study, for instance, the authors found that students from schools with active Gay Straight Alliance clubs were less likely to report bullying than those without such clubs.

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About the author

Ed Cara

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere