Bullying Based on Stigma May Be Especially Damaging

New research shows that bullying based on stigma due to race, sexual orientation, gender, or some other characteristic, is especially harmful to the victims.

And while some interventions are in place, there are issues with how these interventions are being implemented and evaluated, according to University of Delaware researchers.

“I became interested in this because we’re realizing that being bullied due to a stigmatized characteristic or identity is really harmful. I started wondering what people are doing about it, and whether they are doing the right things about it,” said lead author Dr. Valerie Earnshaw, a professor of Human Development and Family Sciences.

“Stigma-based bullying has always been around, but I think that there have been some recent societal shifts that have led people to pay more attention to it.”

Earnshaw reports she is already in the process of developing new research based on the study. One project focuses specifically on increasing the capacity of school health professionals to address LGBTQ bullying. It aims to develop an intervention that can help these professionals prevent, identify, and address bullying of LGBTQ students, particularly of multiracial backgrounds and those who identify as transgender.

Earnshaw notes that some strategies like bystander intervention, where students not involved in a bullying incident speak up or intervene, could be helpful to address all forms of bullying.

But specific strategies that address stigma, like reducing stereotypes and prejudice, may be necessary to address stigma-based bullying, she said.

She added that although research has not made strong connections between gun violence in schools and stigma-based bullying, some signs are there.

The perpetrator of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, had connections with a white supremacy group, she said. Other perpetrators of gun violence have histories of engaging in gender-based harassment and/or violence.

“Perhaps intervening early on these stigma-related factors could have downstream effects on preventing gun violence,” Earnshaw said.

An intervention to address bullying could be a focused, one-on-one effort with the victim or a perpetrator, or it could be a preventative measure imposed on a whole school, she explained.

The new study does show an increase in interventions to address stigma-based bullying, such as bullying of young people with stigmatized identities, like LGBTQ youth, overweight youth, and those with disabilities.

Between 2000-2007, six were published in the peer-reviewed literature. From 2008-2015, 16 were published, Earnshaw said.

“This is good,” she said. “People are realizing that stigma-based bullying is harmful, and they’re trying to do things to stop it or help youth experiencing it.”

The reason seems to be issue-oriented, she said. For example, the momentum for equality and civil rights for LGBTQ individuals and support for gay marriage seems to have brought the issue of LGBTQ bullying to the fore.

While this is a positive, it also means that interventions aren’t evenly distributed across stigmas, she noted.

For example, Assistant Professor Tia Barnes, who focuses on race-based bullying, said the research team could only find two types of interventions used at schools that addressed race.

She added that she wonders if the recent shift in political climate, where students are targeted because they are Muslim or even appear that way to bullies, could boost that number.

“We talked a lot about what future research directions should be,” she said. “It would definitely be that we do need more research on race-based bullying and more interventions at the school level.”

And that is perhaps the most important finding of the new study: That more findings need to be made.

In other words, stigma-based bullying interventions should be rigorously evaluated to see how and why these interventions work, Earnshaw said.

“Overall, stigma-based bullying is a complex phenomenon that takes an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to address,” she said. “Students, teachers, parents, healthcare providers, coaches, religious leaders, and policymakers all have a role to play in ending it and improving the wellbeing of youth who are affected by it.”

The study was published in the journal Developmental Review.

Source: University of Delaware
Photo: Bullying can be based on stigmas and interventions can vary. Credit: Illustration Jeffrey Chase/ University of Delaware.