By Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
Cyberbullying and online harassment can be an issue for anyone. But it’s especially pernicious for young people who identify or are coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ).
A 2012 study by Warren Blumenfeld and R.M. Cooper found that 52 percent of LGBTQ youth between the ages of 11 and 22 reported having been the targets of cyberbullying several times, while 54 percent had been bullied about their sexual identity and 37 percent had been bullied about their gender identity or expression in the past 30 days. The more recent 2015 Youth Risk Behavior study from the Centers for Disease Control also found that LGBTQ youth were more likely to be bullied or otherwise victimized compared to their heterosexual peers while a study by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that LGBTQ youth were almost three times more likely to be bullied or harassed online than heterosexual students.
But none of this came as a surprise to San Jose State alumni Warren Blumenfeld, the co-author of that 2012 study and author of ConnectSafely’s latest booklet, The Parent, Educator & Youth Guide to LGBTQ Cyberbullying. Blumenfeld grew up long before there was such a thing as technology-enabled bullying but he suffered the in-person kind starting at a very young age and, in 1971, wrote one of the first articles on the subject, “School is not a Gay Place to Be,” for EdCentric Magazine.
“The chain of sexual oppression imposed by my schooling started the very first day I entered kindergarten,” he wrote 46 years ago. “As my mother dropped me off and kissed me good-bye, I felt alone and began to cry. The teacher walked up and said in a rough voice: ‘Don’t cry, only sissies and little girls cry.’”
We’ve come a long way since Blumenfeld attended kindergarten in the 1950’s, but as his and subsequent studies have shown, we still have a way to go. That includes in online environments, which stay with children after the bell rings via their cell phones and computers and can continue the cruelty at home or even as they commute between school and home. For the most part, cyberbullying is the same as in-person bullying but technology can serve as an amplifier and makes it possible to be bullied even by people you don’t know, sometimes in front of large and anonymous audiences with the possibility of being re-victimized over a period of time as the material remains online and is subsequently shared.
ConnectSafely’s new booklet not only points out the likelihood and consequences of cyberbullying of LGBTQ youth, but also how the online world can be “an incredibly important and helpful lifeline for many LGBTQ youth.” For many, connected apps and services “are their only or primary means of seeking support and communicating with others like themselves.”
This can be especially true for young people who are not getting the support and understanding they need from their own families or within their local communities. “Online forums can be places for support, understanding and compassion,” which is one of the reasons the ConnectSafely guide argues that “adults should think very carefully before restricting online access for LGBTQ youth, even if they are encountering harassment and threats.” Even though social media can be used to bully others, it is often used as a means of seeking and receiving support from friends and even strangers who are serving as “upstanders” rather than bystanders.
Blumenfeld says that “the most helpful thing family members can do for LGBTQ youth is to let them know they are safe, loved and supported.” Channels of communications need to remain open and the youth need to be assured that they have “unqualified love and support” from those around them, even if the parents and children have different values and attitudes.
The same goes for educators. It’s very common for there to be a link between cyberbullying and in-school bullying and it’s important for educators to be responsive to those who are made to feel uncomfortable for any reason, including because of their sexual identity.
It’s important to create a positive school climate “where there are high standards for student and teacher behavior toward one another.” The guide recommends that schools “hold public meetings, conduct interviews, and/or distribute research surveys … to assess the needs, concerns and life experiences of LGBTQ youth, their families, and school staff” and to follow up with policies that protect LGBTQ students from harassment, violence and discrimination.
All school personnel should undergo training and schools can also offer training for students to encourage them to become “active upstanders who can intervene and help defuse the situation.” Schools can also organize forums and make sure that their curriculum and programs include “accurate, honest, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information on LGBTQ topics at every grade level, across the curriculum in all subject areas, and in other school programs and assemblies.”
And even if you’re not part of a school or don’t have LGBTQ youth in your family, you can still be an ally in both your in-person and online interactions. The booklet includes a resource section with links to organizations, web sites and other resources to help empower all of us to be “upstanders.”