Political controversies increase bullying in youths

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COLUMBIA

Scientists have uncovered new evidence that heated political discourse over proposed laws involving marginalized groups, such as debates about the rights, can contribute to an increase in bullying linked to students’ identity in schools. It is the largest study to date to examine the link.

In a new study out Monday at The University of Texas at Austin, Columbia University and Texas State University found that in the run-up to a statewide voter referendum to ban gay marriage in California, young people reported significantly more homophobic bullying. In fact, homophobic bullying peaked that school year and declined after the public debate about the initiative in question, Proposition 8, subsided.

We think that young people don’t hear what adults and lawmakers are talking about, but they do, said Stephen Russell, senior author of the paper and chair of the Human Development and Family Sciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Researchers say the study provides empirical evidence that public debates about policies and laws involving marginalized groups can lead bullies to target young people identified as being part of those groups.

“Public votes and voter referendums on the rights of minority groups occur in approximately half of U.S. states,” said Mark Hatzenbuehler, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences and sociology at Columbia University and the paper’s first author. Our findings suggest that the public discourse surrounding these votes may increase risk for bias-based bullying.

The study looked at yearly survey data from nearly 5 million middle and high school students in more than 5,000 schools in California from 2001 to 2015 and whether those students experienced homophobic bullying.

The rate of homophobic bullying rose from 7.6 percent of students reporting they experienced this bullying in the 2001-02 school year to 10.8 percent in the 2008-09 school year when the Proposition 8 vote took place. — VoM

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