Insights on Canadian Society
Bullying victimization among sexually and gender diverse youth in Canada

by Elena Prokopenko and Darcy Hango

Release date: October 18, 2022

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Acknowledgment

This study was funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada.

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Overview of the study

Bullying – including such behaviours as being teased, insulted or excluded - can have a myriad of consequences on youth’s short and long-term health and well-being. Along with the immediate physical and emotional impacts of bullying, young people’s overall quality of life can be adversely affected over an entire lifetime, impacting their participation and engagement in various aspects of life and society. Sexually and gender diverse Canadians, which in this study, refer to those who are transgender, non-binary, or report same-gender sexual attraction, are more frequent targets of bullying.

Using the Canadian Health Survey of Children and Youth (2019), this study provides an understanding of the prevalence and severity of self-reported experiences of bullying among sexually and gender diverse youth (aged 15 to 17). Ten forms of bullying are examined, ranging from being made fun of, to having one’s property destroyed, to more cyberbullying type measures such as having hurtful information posted on the internet. The study also looks at the association between bullying, sexual and gender diversity, and other socio-demographic characteristics, as well as the relationships between bullying and overall health and well-being of sexually and gender diverse youth.

  • Overall, 7 in 10 youth aged 15 to 17 reported experiencing some form of bullying in the preceding year. Sexually and gender diverse youth (aged 15-17) were most at risk, with 77% experiencing any of the 10 bullying behaviours measured on the survey. This compares to 69% of cisgenderNote  youth who are exclusively attracted to a different-gender.
  • With the exception of two of the ten types of bullying measured by the survey, sexually and gender diverse youth were more likely to be victims than the exclusively different-gender attracted cisgender youth. The differences were especially large for three forms of bullying: (1) being made fun of, called names or insulted by others, (2) being excluded from activities, and (3) having rumours spread by others.
  • The share of sexually and gender diverse youth who reported experiencing six to ten of the ten measured bullying behaviours (16%) was significantly higher than the 10% among other youth.
  • A higher share of bullying incidents occurred weekly or daily among sexually and gender diverse youth relative to their cisgender counterparts who reported being exclusively attracted to a different gender (10% vs 6%).
  • Sexually and gender diverse youth who were bullied reported the highest incidence of negative mental health outcomes, even after taking into account a range of socio-demographic factors. For example, these youth were the most likely to report that they considered taking their own life in the past year (27%). This was almost double the probability recorded for their non-bullied counterparts (16%), as well as bullied cisgender and exclusively different-gender attracted youth (13%). Further, cisgender youth who were exclusively attracted to a different gender and who were not bullied were the least likely to have considered taking their own life (about 1 in 20 or 5%).

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Introduction

Several studies on victimization have found that sexual and gender diversity people are at heightened risk of victimization, both online and in-person.Note   For example, results from the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on Canadians’ Safety found that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth (aged 18-29) were about two times more likely than heterosexual youth to have been cyberbullied and cyberstalked in the last 5 years.Note  More recent Canadian research using the Survey of Individual Safety in the Postsecondary Student Population (SISPSP), found that among students at postsecondary institutions (aged 18-24, or 17-24 in Quebec), LGBTQ2+ persons were twice as likely as heterosexual cisgender peers to have experienced discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.Note 

Internationally, there is also evidence of the increased risk of harassment among sexually and gender diverse youth. A national study from the United States found that the vast majority (87%) of sexually and gender diverse students experienced some type of harassment or assault on the basis of their personal characteristics in the past year. The most common types experienced were verbal harassment, sexual harassment, and electronic harassment (e.g., via text message, social media).Note 

The impact of the victimization, including acts of bullying – including being teased, insulted or excluded - can be especially pronounced for young sexualNote  Note  and/or gender diverse people.Note  Note  One study, for instance, found that bullied sexually and gender diverse youth had higher rates of suicide ideation and attempts than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts.Note  Additionally, American longitudinal data found that diverse gender expression in childhood was associated with more depressive symptoms in later adolescence, and that bullying victimization accounted for about one-third of the effect.Note  Note   

Beyond these effects, young people’s overall quality of life can be adversely affected over an entire lifetime, impacting their participation and engagement in various aspects of life and society. For instance, academic performance, and in turn, career potential and financial security, can be adversely impacted. A study in the United States found an association between low grade point average, low academic aspirations and victimization amongst sexual and gender diversity students. Note 

Indeed, bullying may compound already heightened levels of poor mental health, suicide ideation, and substance use among sexually and gender diverse youth.Note  The Chief Public Health Officer of Canada’s 2019 Report on the State of Public Health in Canada identified and highlighted the importance of examining the intersectionality between health, discrimination and sexual diversity status.Note  One explanation for the generally higher levels of physical and mental health issues among sexual and gender diversity persons is found in the minority stress theory.Note  This theory postulates that the stress of concealment, internalized negative stereotypes, and hypervigilance of potential harm (i.e., the expectation of experiencing discrimination) are negatively associated with mental and physical health.Note 

This paper examines experiences of bullying in the preceding year (in 2018) among high school-aged (15-17 years old) youth who report same-gender attraction and transgender and non-binary youth regardless of their sexual attraction. This allows for a comparison of experiences of bullying in the preceding year with those of cisgender youth exclusively attracted to a different-gender. Note 

The goal of this paper is to report on the experiences of bullying of sexually and gender diverse youth compared to their exclusively different-gender attracted cisgender peers to better understand the relationship between sexual attraction and gender identity, bullying, and health and well-being. This study uses the term sexually and gender diverse youth for transgender youth, those who did not report their gender as exclusively male or female (non-binary youth), and those who are attracted to the same gender.

Sexual and gender diversity among youth associated with higher likelihood to have experienced bullying in past year

The current study operationalizes sexual orientation using a measure of sexual attraction, which was collected on the Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth (CHSCY). This measure may be used to capture sexually diverse youth who may not have been sexually intimate with someone, or who may be less likely than their older counterparts to identify with a given sexual identity.Note  Based on this measure and using sex at birth and gender information of the respondent, the proportion of the age 15 to 17 population that reported they have at least some same-gender attraction is about 18% (almost 188,000), while 82% report attraction exclusively to a different gender (Table 1).

Respondents to the CHSCY were asked about their experiences of being bullied in the past year. Specifically, ten different types of bullying were assessed on measures ranging from being made fun of, to having one’s property destroyed, to more cyberbullying type measures such as having hurtful information posted on the internet (see Data sources, methods and definitions). Experiencing any one of these ten types of bullying at any frequency was reported by nearly three quarters (70%) of all youth aged 15 to 17. However, a larger share of transgender, non-binary, and youth with at least some same-gender attraction (as compared to exclusively different-gender attracted cisgender youth) reported such experiences, 77% versus 69%.Note  This aligns with previous research in Canada and the United States.Note   


Table 1
Proportion of youth aged 15-17 bullied in the past year, by sexual attraction and gender identity, 2019
Table summary
This table displays the results of Proportion of youth aged 15-17 bullied in the past year. The information is grouped by Sexual attraction/gender identity (appearing as row headers), Total, youth aged 15-17 and Youth aged 15 -17 bullied in the preceding year (appearing as column headers).
Sexual attraction/gender identity Total, youth aged 15-17 Youth aged 15 -17 bullied in the preceding year
Weighted Count Percent
Sexually and gender diverse youthTable 1 Note  187,667 17.8 76.9Note *
Cisgender youth with exclusive different-gender attraction (ref.) 867,977 82.2 69.0
Total, youth aged 15-17 1,055,644 100 70.4

Being made fun of and called names the most prevalent forms of bullying regardless of sexual attraction or gender identity

Not all types of bullying elicit the same effects, have the same perpetrators, or occur in the same locations. Cyberbullying, for instance, can impact youth at home when they access their social media accounts, while physical bullying likely occurs away from home. The former is likely to have negative emotional and mental health repercussions, while the latter can impact both physical and mental health. Knowing the prevalence of specific types of bullying can help pinpoint potential areas for prevention/intervention.


Table 2
Prevalence of bullying experienced by youth aged 15-17 in past year, by specific bullying type and sexual attraction and gender identity, 2019
Table summary
This table displays the results of Prevalence of bullying experienced by youth aged 15-17 in past year. The information is grouped by Types of bullying (appearing as row headers), Total, youth aged 15-17, Sexual attraction/gender identity, Sexually and gender diverse youth and Cisgender with exclusive different- gender attraction (ref.), calculated using percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Types of bullying Total, youth aged 15-17 Sexual attraction/gender identity
Sexually and gender diverse youthTable 2 Note  Cisgender with exclusive different- gender attraction (ref.)
percentage
Made fun of, called names or insulted by others 58.7 66.8Note * 56.9
Rumours were spread by others 35.2 42.5Note * 33.6
Excluded from activities 32.4 40.0Note * 30.8
Pressured to do things by others 18.7 23.2Note * 17.8
Threatened/insulted online or by text messages 18.6 22.1 17.8
Pushed, shoved, tripped or spit on by other 17.2 19.2 16.8
Threatened with harm by others 16.9 21.0Note * 16.1
Excluded from an online community 13.4 17.4Note * 12.6
Hurtful information was posted on the internet 9.9 15.4Note * 8.7
Property was destroyed by others 9.7 12.9Note * 9.0

The most commonly reported form of bullying for all youth aged 15 to 17 is being made fun of or insulted by others (59%) (See Table 2). This is the most prevalent regardless of sexual attraction or gender identity (67% for sexually and gender diverse youth, and 57% for cisgender youth exclusively attracted to a different gender). The next most commonly reported forms of bullying, regardless of sexual attraction or gender identity, were rumours being spread and being excluded from activities.

In contrast, the least common reported forms of bullying are being excluded from an online community, having hurtful information posted on the internet and having property destroyed by others.  In 8 of the 10 forms, a significantly larger share of transgender, non-binary, and youth with at least some same-gender attraction reported bullying as compared to cisgender youth exclusively attracted to a different gender. The exceptions are: being threatened/insulted online or by text messages, and being pushed, shoved, tripped or spit on by others.

Sexually and gender diverse youth were significantly more likely to report experiencing six to ten different forms of bullying

In most cases, experiencing many different forms or types of bullying can have a more harmful impact on youth than if only one form is experienced. The accumulation of stress and emotional health issues related to bullying are likely compounded if an individual is bullied in multiple ways.Note  The results in Table 3 show that sexually and gender diverse youth were significantly more likely to report one or more forms of bullying.


Table 3
Number of bullying types experienced by youth aged 15-17 in past year, by sexual attraction and gender identity, 2019
Table summary
This table displays the results of Number of bullying types experienced by youth aged 15-17 in past year. The information is grouped by Number of bullying types (appearing as row headers), Total, youth aged 15-17, Sexual attraction/gender identity, Sexually and gender diverse youth and Cisgender with exclusive different- gender attraction (ref.), calculated using percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Number of bullying types Total, youth aged 15-17 Sexual attraction/gender identity
Sexually and gender diverse youthTable 3 Note  Cisgender with exclusive different- gender attraction (ref.)
percentage
None 29.6 23.1Note * 31.0
One or two 33.5 32.5 33.8
Three to five 26.0 28.9 25.3
Six to ten 11.0 15.6Note * 10.0

Meanwhile, sexually and gender diverse youth were significantly more likely to report experiencing six to ten different forms of bullying in the past 12 months (16%), just over one and half times as many as cisgender youth who reported being exclusively attracted to a different gender (10%).

Sexually and gender diverse youth were nearly twice as likely to report weekly or daily bullying on multiple forms of bullying

Similar to multiple types of bullying, experiencing frequent repeated episodes of bullying is typically more harmful than occasional incidents. In one study, frequent bullying between the ages of 8 and 10 was found to increase the risk of self-harm by age 12.Note   In the present context, the CHSCY asked about the frequency of experiencing the 10 forms of bullying within the preceding year. For the current study, frequent bullying is defined as at least once a week (i.e., weekly or daily).Note 


Table 4
Number of weekly/daily bullying types experienced by youth aged 15-17 in past year, by sexual attraction and gender identity, 2019
Table summary
This table displays the results of Number of weekly/daily bullying types experienced by youth aged 15-17 in past year. The information is grouped by Number of weekly/daily bullying types experienced in past year (appearing as row headers), Total, youth aged 15-17, Sexual attraction/gender identity, Sexually and gender diverse youth and Cisgender with exclusive different- gender attraction (ref.), calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Number of weekly/daily bullying types experienced in past year Total, youth aged 15-17 Sexual attraction/gender identity
Sexually and gender diverse youthTable 4 Note  Cisgender with exclusive different- gender attraction (ref.)
percent
None 84.4 80.5Note * 85.3
One 9.3 9.8 9.2
Two or more 6.3 9.7Note * 5.6

Table 4 shows that sexually and gender diverse youth were significantly more likely than cisgender youth with exclusive different-gender attraction to frequently experience multiple types of bullying. In particular, 9.7% of transgender, non-binary, and youth with same-gender attraction experienced two or more of incidents of bullying on a weekly or daily basis compared to 5.6% of youth with exclusive different-gender attraction. However, there was no difference in frequency between the groups when a single type of bullying was experienced.

Association between bullying, gender attraction and mental health, suicide ideation, and truancy

Bullying can impact overall well-being. The stress associated with being bullied often results in worse physical and mental health outcomes among victims.Note  And, in some cases, the bullying can increase the risk of suicide ideation and substance abuse.Note  These outcomes are often intertwined. For instance, there is a strong connection between poorer mental health and thoughts of suicide.Note  In this paper, three potential well-being indicators are examined: mental health, suicide ideation, and truancy (skipping school without permission). (See Data sources, methods and definitions) For each of the three indicators, logistic regressions were estimated to examine the independent association of sexual attraction and gender identity and bullying on well-being, controlling for a range of socio-demographic factors, as well as other characteristics.Note  The derived estimates are reported in Table 5.


Table 5
Association between sexual attraction and, gender, and bullying and on selected well-being indicators among youth aged 15-17Table 5 Note  Table 5 Note 1, 2019
Table summary
This table displays the results of Association between sexual attraction and, gender, and bullying and on selected well-being indicators among youth aged 15-17. The information is grouped by Sexual attraction/gender and bullying (appearing as row headers), Self-reported poor mental health, Considered taking one's own life in past year and Skipped school 3 or more times in past year without permission, calculated using percentage units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Sexual attraction/gender identity and bullyingTable 5 Note 2 Self-reported poor mental health Considered taking one's own life in past year Skipped school 3 or more times in past year without permission
percentage
All youth aged 15-17 16.1 13.2 14.7
Different-gender attracted, not bullied 5.6Note ** 4.7Note ** 9.1Note **
Different-gender attracted, bullied 15.9Note ** 12.6Note ** 16.0Note *
Same-gender attraction, not bulliedTable 5 Note  15.9Note ** 15.6Note ** 9.5Note **
Same-gender attraction, bullied (ref.)Table 5 Note  32.7 26.7 20.3

After socio-demographic and socio-economic factors were taken into account, sexually and gender diverse youth who were bullied in the previous year had a considerably higher probability of poorer mental health, with 33% describing their own mental health as poor. This figure was twice the probability of sexually and gender diverse youth who were not bullied (16%) and bullied youth who were cisgender and exclusively attracted to a different-gender (16%).

Bullied youth also showed higher risk of reporting recent suicidal ideation, though again, this was more common among sexually and gender diverse youth. In 2019, bullied youth with same-gender attraction or who were transgender or non-binary were twice as likely to consider taking their own life in the last year, as compared to other bullied youth (respective probabilities of 27% and 13%, after other factors were taken into account). Cisgender youth who were not bullied and who were exclusively attracted to a different gender were the least likely to have had suicidal thoughts in the last year, at 5%.

Perhaps reflecting the poorer mental health and/or desire to avoid bullying incidents, bullied youth were most likely to skip school. After socio-demographic and socio-economic factors were taken into account, the probability of skipping school at least three times in the past year was 20% among bullied sexual and gender diversity youth and 16% among bullied youth that were exclusively attracted to a different gender. This compares to a 10% probability among sexual and gender diversity youth who had not experienced bullying and 9% for non-bullied youth with exclusive different-gender attraction.

Conclusion

Bullying victimization of sexually and gender diverse youth is generally more prevalent than among the heterosexual and cisgender population in Canada. In the current paper, a measure of sexual attraction was used to identify the sexual and gender diversity population at increased risk of bullying. Youth aged 15 to 17 who were attracted to the same gender together with transgender and non-binary youth were compared with cisgender teens with exclusive different-gender attraction. This study showed that transgender, non-binary, and youth with at least some same-gender attraction youth were significantly more likely to have experienced any form of bullying in the past year (77%) than exclusively different-gender attracted cisgender youth (69%). This difference remained even when taking into account a wide range of sociodemographic factors.

Sexually and gender diverse youth were more likely to be victims of nearly all of the 10 forms of bullying measured in this survey. The differences between the sexually and gender diverse youth and exclusively different-gender attracted cisgender youth were especially large for three forms of bullying: (1) being made fun of, called names or insulted by others, (2) being excluded from activities, and (3) having rumours spread by others.

Same-gender attracted, transgender and non-binary youth also experienced a greater number of these 10 types than their exclusively different-gender attracted, cisgender counterparts. At the same time, sexually and gender diverse youth experienced more instances of frequent bullying (weekly or daily) than youth who reported being cisgender and only attracted to a different gender.

Bullying is often associated with negative health and well-being outcomes. A great deal of past research has examined these issues using a framework synonymous with minority stress theory, which states that the stress among sexually and gender diverse youth associated with concealing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or with acts of violence and bullying may manifest themselves into poor mental health, suicide ideation, and truancy. In line with past work, the current study found that being a victim of bullying and reporting same-gender attraction, being transgender or non-binary was related to poorer mental health, including heightened risk of suicide ideation. The results also suggest that bullying may impact school attendance. Sexually and gender diverse youth who were bullied in the past year were more likely to frequently skip school without permission.

For the first time in Canada, data from the Canadian Health Survey of Children and Youth are available to examine bullying among sexually and gender diverse youth based on a nationally-representative sample. Taken together, the findings in this paper highlight issues among an infrequently studied adolescent population and one that is vulnerable to victimization. The findings enhance our understanding of the experiences sexually and gender diverse youth have with bullying and the subsequent relationship with well-being indicators, which can help inform public health, education, and youth-focused policies. And, given that the sexually and gender diverse population in Canada is younger, on average,Note  continued youth-focused research is needed to inform programs and policies about issues facing this population.  

Elena Prokopenko is an analyst with Diversity and Sociocultural Statistics and Darcy Hango is a senior researcher with the Centre for Social Data Insights and Innovation.

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Data sources, methods and definitions

Data

The Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth (CHSCY) explores issues that have an impact on the physical and mental health of children and youth, such as physical activity, the use of electronic devices, time spent in school and extracurricular activities. Information from the survey is used to develop programs and policies to help improve the lives of Canadian children and youth. The 2019 CHSCY covers the population aged 1 to 17 as of January 31, 2019, living in the ten provinces and the three territories. Excluded from the survey's coverage are children and youth living on First Nation reserves and other Aboriginal settlements in the provinces, children and youth living in foster homes and the institutionalized population. Data were collected directly from respondents from February 11, 2019 to August 2, 2019. Respondents were given the opportunity to complete the questionnaire online, and if this was not completed by March 31, 2019 a Statistics Canada interviewer called and asked them to complete the questionnaire over the phone.

The population of interest for the current study are youth aged 15 to 17 because these were the ages that were asked about their sexual attraction preferences.

Measures

Sexual attraction

Sexual attraction is asked of 15- to 17-year-olds via the following question: People are different in their sexual attraction to other people. Which best describes your feelings? Would you say you are: (1) Only attracted to males, (2) Mostly attracted to males, (3) Equally attracted to females and males, (4) Mostly attracted to females, (5) Only attracted to females, (6) Unsure.

This measure is then combined with one’s self-reported gender to create an indicator of sexual attraction. Initially a four category variable was created: (1) at least some same-gender attraction combined all youth who said that they were ‘only’ or ‘mostly’ attracted to the same gender, (2) equal attraction to both females and males includes youth who say they have an equal attraction to both females and males, (3) exclusively different-gender attraction includes male youth who say they only have sexual attraction to females, and female youth who say they only have sexual attraction for males, (4) unsure are those youth who report being unsure about their sexual attraction.  Youth who said they had at least some same-gender attraction or equal attraction to both females and males, as well as and transgender and non-binary youth were grouped together and compared with cisgender teens who said they are exclusively attracted to a different gender. For purposes of the analyses, respondents who said they were unsure about the target of their sexual attraction (4% of all 15- to 17-year-olds) were removed as it was difficult to ascertain to which group, they should be placed. Also, they are a very important group in their own right.

Bullying

The CHSCY includes 10 items asking about experiences of bullying. The specific question is: Sometimes people tease, hurt or upset another person on purpose. During the past 12 months, how often did the following things happen to you?

  • Someone made fun of you, called you names or insulted you
  • Someone spread rumours about you
  • Someone threatened you with harm
  • Someone pushed you, shoved you, tripped you or spit on you
  • Someone tried to make you do things you did not want to do
  • Someone excluded you from activities on purpose
  • Someone destroyed your property on purpose
  • Someone posted hurtful information about you on the Internet
  • Someone threatened or insulted you through email, instant messaging, text messaging or an online game
  • Someone purposefully excluded you from an online community

For each experience, respondents indicate how often this incident occurred using a Likert scale. Response categories for each type of incident are:  1: Never; 2: A few times a year; 3: Monthly; 4: Weekly; or 5: Daily.

In this paper the above 10 items are used in three different versions: (1) a dichotomous version combines any frequency of bullying (a few times a year or higher) compared to never been bullied; (2) the number of types or forms of bullying are combined into four separate categories—none, one or two, three to five, and six to ten; (3) frequency of bullying across all 10 items is combined to form a measure of frequent bullying such as weekly or daily on none of the ten forms, on one of them, or on two or more of them.

In this paper, three potential outcomes associated with bullying and sexual and gender diverse populations are examined: (1) mental health, (2) suicide ideation, and (3) truancy (skipping school without permission).  The first measure asks the respondent: `In general, how is your mental health?’ Response categories are excellent, very good, good, fair, and poor. The outcome measure is dichotomous with those answering fair or poor in one category while those who say excellent, very good and good in the other. Suicide ideation is measured via the question: ‘In the past 12 months, did you ever seriously consider attempting suicide or taking your own life?’. Truancy is measured via the question asking respondents, “In the past 12 months, about how many times have you skipped a day of school without permission”? Responses were: never, 1 to 2 times, 3 or 4 times, 5 or more times. For purposes of this study, the responses were dichotomized to 3 times or more, or 1 to 2 times or less.

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