Hate crimes went up by 17 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to newly released FBI statistics, a stark reminder of what America has watched unfold in the form of mass shootings and other acts of domestic terrorism.
But a new study has examined a less obvious manifestation of prejudice — student bullying that’s motivated by race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion or sexual orientation. And its researchers have concluded that this particular type of bullying can have a lasting negative impact on an individual’s health and well-being.
“Bias-based bullying is repeated aggression that involves a power imbalance, where the victim is the target because of one or more dimension of their identities,” Elan Hope, assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and one of the study’s authors, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “That’s different from non-bias-based bullying, which might be because you’re shy or you wear purple.”
For the study, Hope and the other researchers took a deep dive into the 2015 School Crime Supplement survey to see what happens when students are bullied for more than one aspect of their identities, such as if they are black and gay, Muslim and female, or disabled and Asian.
“Increasingly, we know now that when kids are targeted because of a dimension of their identity that they can’t change, then that’s especially problematic,” says Kelly Lynn Mulvey, assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State and a co-author of the study, which was published in the journal Psychology of Violence. When the bullying is based on multiple dimensions, the researchers hypothesized, the problems would be compounded.
Relying on the students’ self-reported perceptions of what they went through and why, the study calculated the way it affected them in areas such fear of being harmed, school avoidance, academic performance and physical and psychological health. The results were significantly worse for the students who were targeted for more than one factor than it was for those bullied for just one aspect of their identity (or for non-biased reasons).
That means these students are more at risk for doing poorly in school, dropping out and suffering economically and psychologically later in life.
“If you are being targeted because you wear purple, then you can say, ‘OK, well, I can make the decision to continue wearing purple, or I can change and no longer wear purple,’” Mulvey tells Yahoo. “Whereas if you’re being targeted because of your gender and your ethnicity, those are dimensions of your identity that are with you, and we shouldn’t be encouraging children to think differently about how they present themselves. That is who they are.”
Most current antibullying programs address all types of bullying as one. The conventional wisdom is that by increasing the perception of safety and fairness in schools, and by building up social support for students, the abuse will be curbed and victims will be better able to bounce back from it.
But a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always work, say the study’s authors, who found that victims of multifactor, bias-based bullying say they are not being helped by those measures.
“What part of our findings show is there’s still more that schools can do,” Hope says. “You can’t ignore why the bullying is happening. If the bullying is based on bias, there may be other steps that the schools need to take to address the root of the biases and micro-aggressions that are happening.”
For now, the psychologists are continuing their work to study bullying and biases, along with solutions to both. As much of the country grapples with the troubling rise of hate crime, Hope’s aptly named Hope Lab at North Carolina State is looking at afterschool programs that might help students better understand each other’s differences.
“It feels like there’s a lot of benefit to programs that really dig into a critical analysis of our society [and] the history of different groups of people and how we’ve all come together,” she says. “It seems that approaches that try to minimize difference really do more harm than good. But with approaches that dig into it and really trust kids to be capable of deep thinking about these issues, the kids seem to respond and ask questions and support each other.”
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