A new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that publicly debated social policies might increase bias-based bullying among young people.
The study used data collected from nearly 5 million middle school and high school students who completed the California Healthy Kids survey between 2001 and 2014. Researchers compared the rates of homophobic bullying among students before and after the state's Proposition 8 initiative in 2008, which asked voters to decide whether or not same-sex marriage should be banned.
Voters approved Proposition 8, which made it illegal for gay couples to marry. In 2010, the measure was overturned by a federal judge who declared the rule unconstitutional.
The study found that the rates of homophobic bullying increased before the Proposition 8 vote. Then, following the Proposition 8 vote, homophobic bullying rates decreased year after year.
"This research provides some of the first empirical evidence that public campaigns that promote stigma may confer risk for bias-based bullying among youth," the authors wrote.
What are the details?
Students across nearly 5,000 schools participated in the surveys.
The students were also asked questions about bullying related to their race, ethnicity, religion, and gender.
Researchers found that the rates of bullying related to race, ethnicity, religion, and gender decreased during the 2008 and 2009 school years.
Schools with gay-straight alliance groups were less likely to see a rise in homophobic bullying compared to those that lacked programs for LGBT students.
The rates of homophobic bullying at schools with LGBT groups were below 10 percent versus rates of 13 percent on campuses without gay-straight alliances.
Stephen Russell, the senior author of the study and chair of the Human Development and Family Sciences Department at the University of Texas at Austin, said the study shows how students are affected by "media-driven discussions."
"Policies and campaigns related to Black Lives Matter, bathroom bills, immigration — these can be concerning in how they affect the health and well-being of youth," Russell told Newsweek. "The public health consequences of these very contentious and media-driven discussions are more important than we knew."
Straight kids also reported being bullied.
"The data are telling us that straight kids are getting bullied for this, too," Russell added. "It's all about what the bullies perceive."