Health News

In-person friends combat bullies better than online friends

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Gay and lesbian adolescents see their online friends as generally more supportive than their in-person friends, but when they do have pals who can physically offer a hand or a hug, those friends provide a superior protective shield against bullying, a new study finds.

“LGBT youth are turning online for support,” developmental psychologist Catherine Bradshaw told Reuters Health. But, “they still need to have an authentic, in-person relationships in order to buffer the impact of victimization,” she said.

Bradshaw is the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence and was not involved with the current study.

Researchers who analyzed two polls with 5,542 American adolescents found that those who identified as gay, lesbian or queer were more frequent targets of online bullying than heterosexual youth.

Nearly one in two homosexual youths reported online bullying or other victimization, compared to one is six heterosexual youths, the study found.

Adolescents in the study, who ranged in age from 13 to 18, were randomly selected to receive an email invitation to participate, or they responded to a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network invitation on Facebook.

Sexual minority youths were significantly more likely than straight youths to rate their online friends as more supportive than their in-person friends, researchers found.

For example, those who identified as gay, lesbian and queer were more than twice as likely to perceive their online friends as better “listeners” than their in-person friends, according to the study published in Child Abuse and Neglect.

But face-to-face relationships did more to combat bullying, the research showed.

The odds of being bullied online or offline decreased by 5 percent with each incremental increase in perceived in-person social support, the study found.

In-person sexual harassment was also less likely with more in-person social support.

“Online friendships can have very positive influences,” lead researcher Michele Ybarra told Reuters Health. “But, within the context of bullying and sexual harassment victimization, it appears that offline relationships are what are protective.”

Ybarra is president and research director for the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, California.

Earlier studies found that bullying – online as well as offline – is common during adolescence, Ybarra’s article says.

Prior research has also shown that being bullied can exact a psychological toll on kids for years by heightening the risk for depression, anxiety and panic disorder (see Reuters Health story of February 21, 2013 here:

Bullies more frequently target kids who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, prior studies have shown.

In one study, 82 percent of LGBT youth reported being verbally taunted and 38 percent reported being physically harassed in the past year at school because of their sexual identity, the current authors write.

“Rates of bullying and sexual harassment are unacceptably high for LBGT youth. Unfortunately, social support is not enough to buffer this victimization,” Ybarra said.

She suggests that it may be easier for sexual minorities to find like-minded people online than in their classrooms and communities.

“There’s a lot of stigma and judgment and hatred in our country directed at LBGT youth. So, for some young people, they are able to find more positive relationships online, where there’s less judgment,” she said.

Nothing substitutes for a good friend who can offer a hand or a hug, though.

“The online connection doesn’t appear to be a surrogate for the in-person relationship,” Bradshaw said.

“At the end of the day, we still need to make sure that all youth, particularly LGBT youth, have in-person connections to others,” she said. “The underlying mechanism is about feeling connected to others.”

SOURCE: Child Abuse & Neglect, online September 2, 2014.