Newswise — Being a teenager is hard enough, but Dr. Yishan Shen, an assistant professor in the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Texas State University, has uncovered additional challenges for youths between 10 and 19 who are targets of bullying during contentious political campaigns.

Divisive partisan climates can cause an increase in homophobic bullying, according to Shen’s research group headed by Stephen Russell, chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Although Shen’s primary area of interest is on the development of adolescents from Latino and Asian immigrant families, she joined Russell’s laboratory as a graduate student at UT in 2015 to expand her scholarship to other minority and marginalized groups. 

While examining data from the California Healthy Kids Survey gathered before a 2008 referendum known as Proposition 8, Shen found what she describes as an “odd peak of homophobic bullying in 2008.” When she reported the trend to Russell, he exclaimed, “The Prop 8 Effect!” in a reference to attitudes about a California ballot initiative intended to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. Exploration of this topic continued, and the team’s findings were published as Proposition 8 and Homophobic Bullying in California in the May 13 online edition of the journal Pediatrics.

Shen and the researchers determined that secondary school students reported “significantly more” homophobic bullying as the Prop 8 vote was approaching but less after the Prop 8 vote. “We have run many statistical analyses to see if there are other possible explanations, like the economic or ethnic makeup of the schools, but after controlling for each of these variables, we still observed the same pattern, leading us to conclude that the increase in rates of bullying was indeed associated with Prop 8,” Shen said.

 Fortunately, one school initiative was found to prevent and combat homophobic bullying in their study – the formation of gay-straight alliance clubs, Shen said. 

At Texas State, Shen does not teach a course specifically about homophobic bullying, but she does cover the topic in the classroom. She designed a class for her undergraduate Adolescent Development course to talk about adolescent sexuality, in which she shares the Russell group’s conclusions in relation to LGBT youth and their well-being. Additionally, Shen incorporates research designs stemming from this study in her graduate Research Methods course, challenging graduate students to critically evaluate the strengths and limitations of this study’s research design.

Shen hopes to focus future research on the risk and resilience of youth who are disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression, including their race or ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation.

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