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LGBTQ Cyberbullying: How to Combat Online Attacks Against Youth

A young woman looks at her smartphone.

The world is more connected, thanks in large part to social media. In total, 3.48 billion people globally used social media in 2019, which was 9 percent more than in 2018, according to a We Are Social and Hootsuite report. Additionally, the Pew Research Center reports that 72 percent of people in the US used social media in 2019; in 2005, when Pew started tracking social media adoption, it was only 5 percent of the US population.

While social media can be a powerful tool for creating communities, it also provides anonymity that some users abuse. For schoolchildren and younger adults, this poses a threat in the form of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullies use digital technologies to intentionally harass others through name-calling, insults, humiliation, and other tactics. Cyberbullying often includes the act of excluding others or spreading rumors and lies about a person.

Among the most victimized are people in the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) community, especially teens and young adults. LGBTQ cyberbullying can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts, alcohol and drug misuse, unsafe sexual behavior, and poor academic performance. Combating cyberbullying is vital to creating educational environments that promote the success and wellbeing of all students.

LGBTQ Cyberbullying Statistics

The daily lives of teens and young adults involve the use of social media. For example, individuals ages 18 to 29 make up 77 percent of Snapchat users and 76 percent of Instagram users, according to a Pew Research report. People in this age group are also the heaviest users of TikTok, now the sixth most popular social media platform, according to Hootsuite. The second-highest user group includes children ages 13 to 17.

Among students who self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, some 27.1 percent have been victims of cyberbullying—electronic harassment via text messages or social media—compared to 13.3 percent of their heterosexual peers, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey. The rate of online harassment was 28.5 percent among lesbian and bisexual females, compared to 22.3 percent in gay and bisexual males. Some 22 percent of students who identified as not sure of their sexual identity reported cyberbullying.

Another study from LGBTQ advocacy organization GLSEN found that 48.7 percent of LGBTQ students experienced electronic harassment via text messages or social media in a given year. The study also found that LGBTQ students most often experienced verbal harassment at school based on sexual orientation (70.1 percent), gender expression (59.1 percent), and gender (53.2 percent).

Cyberbullying may occur online, but its impacts have far-reaching implications for the victims on school grounds. The line that divides the online and physical lives of students in middle school and high school can often be nebulous. What takes place online can extend onto school grounds in the form of staring, name-calling, teasing, physical threats and attacks, theft, and public humiliation. Understanding the effects of LGBTQ cyberbullying can help point the way to solutions and help students feel safe online and in school.

The Effects of LGBTQ Cyberbullying

How can cyberbullying impact LGBTQ students? Cyberbullying can lead to school absenteeism, according to a study in the Journal of School Health. The study showed the correlation between cyberbullying and missing school days, revealing that cyberbullied students were nearly twice as likely to miss four days or more of school per month than those not cyberbullied.

More than 10 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual identifying students and 10.7 percent of students who identified as not sure reported absenteeism due to safety concerns in the CDC study, compared to 6.1 percent of heterosexual teens. In the GLSEN survey, some 24.8 percent of LGBTQ students reported absences and 18 percent changed schools due to safety concerns. In fact, according to the latest report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 54 percent of survey respondents who were out or perceived as transgender in K-12 were verbally harassed, and 24 percent were physically attacked. For 17 percent of that same group, mistreatment was so bad they left their school.

Educators also must consider the impact on the mental health of students with gender identity or sexual orientation differences. Around 86 percent of LGBTQ youths (ages 11-17) who undergo mental health screening show positive for a moderate to severe mental health condition, according to Mental Health America, compared to 74 percent of the general screening population. Transgender individuals showed the highest risk for screening positive.

Concerns of attempted suicide are especially urgent among LGBTQ students. “Gay teens are 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide and 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression compared with peers,” according to Stomp Out Bullying. Some 27 percent of transgender youth have attempted suicide, according to Beyond Bullying.

How to Combat Online Attacks

Collaboration between parents and educators can help to combat online attacks. Parents can limit the type of content their child has access to online, as well as monitoring their child’s online activities. In school, educators can help ensure that LGBTQ students feel safe by proactively stepping in and addressing bullying problems as they arise. If a student is getting harassed in the school hallway, a teacher can intervene and inform all involved, including witnesses, that bullying isn’t acceptable behavior.

Many bullying situations occur in hidden places, such as text messages and social media. Not all victims may want to come out and complain. When they do, teachers must listen, take the complaint seriously, and report the incident to the school principal. The ability to forge connections with LGBTQ youth will help in earning their trust.

Educators don’t have to wait for an incident to occur to step in and make a difference. They can spearhead programs focused on inclusivity for LGBTQ students. For example, they can help create LGBTQ-straight alliances (also known as gay-straight alliances or GSAs). GSAs are extracurricular clubs that can improve understanding between LGBTQ students and their heterosexual peers, helping to create safer schools. In schools with GSAs, supportive teachers, or supportive policies (such as inclusive curriculum and anti-bullying policies), LGBTQ students hear fewer negative or homophobic remarks from peers, see better intervention rates from school personnel, and have greater feelings of safety, acording to GLSEN.

Inclusivity is more than enabling equal access to education; it’s also about creating a welcoming school atmosphere for marginalized students. These types of efforts work better with cooperation from fellow educators, school administrators, and other students. Everyone plays a part in helping LGBTQ students feel welcome and safe.

Educators seeking to lead in these efforts can enroll in an advanced degree program to gain the insight, tools, and leadership skills to make an impact in the lives of LGBTQ students.

Preparing Teachers to Ensure Equal Education for All

American University’s School of Education offers two master’s programs to help educators become informed leaders. The programs have a rigorous focus on clinical training, evidence-based frameworks, creativity, and innovation in educational approaches.

Students enrolled in the Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership program acquire knowledge in subjects that can help transform school systems. The classes focus on preparing students with essential policy, leadership, law, economics, and research skills to help families and communities access equal education.

The Master of Arts in Teaching prepares students with critical competencies to apply toward a teaching license. They learn how to enrich classrooms and the school system to promote inclusivity and equality for all students.

Ready to combat LGBTQ cyberbullying? Discover how American University’s School of Education online programs can enable you to remove barriers to an excellent education and transform the education system to benefit all learners.

American Psychological Association, Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth

American University School of Education, Resources for Improving LGBTQ+ Inclusivity in the Classroom

Beyond Bullying, Transphobic Bullying

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBT Youth Resources

Comparitech, “Cyberbullying Facts and Statistics for 2020”

GLSEN, 2017 National School Climate Survey

HelpGuide, Bullying and Cyberbullying

Hootsuite, “Everything Brands Need to Know About TikTok in 2020”

Mental Health America, LGBTQ+ Mental Health: Insights from MHA Screening

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The Association Between Electronic Bullying and School Absenteeism Among High School Students in the United States”

National Center for Transgender Equality, U.S. Transgender Survey

National Education Association, 6 Tips for Educators Dealing with Harassment of LGBT Students Netsanity, Cyberbullying: LGBT Youth

Pew Research Center, “A Majority of Teens Have Experienced Some Form of Cyberbullying”

Pew Research Center, “Share of U.S. Adults Using Social Media, Including Facebook, Is Mostly Unchanged Since 2018”

Pew Research Center, Social Media Fact Sheet

Stomp Out Bullying, Making Schools Safe for LGBTQ Community

StopBullying.gov, LGBTQ Youth

The Conversation, “LGBTQ Teenagers Are Creating New Online Subcultures to Combat Oppression”

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 2017

We Are Social, “Digital 2019: Global Internet Use Accelerates”

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