Empty promises?

It gets better… Or does it? Study finds anti-bullying catch phrase may do more harm than good

We’re sure Dan Savage and Terry Miller had only the best intentions when they launched the It Gets Better project back in 2010. And they certainly had a lot of support, with everyone from Ellen Degeneres to Hillary Clinton to President Obama jumping on board to promote the anti-bullying catchphrase. But new research finds the project might actually be doing more harm than good.

It Gets Better was originally launched in response to the rising number of suicides committed by LGBTQ youth as a result of bullying and discrimination. Over the past seven years, it has added more than 50,000 videos of people talking about how they overcame bullying, and the book “It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living” has hit multiple bestseller lists.

But a study from the University of Arizona suggests simply wishing for a brighter future where people are nicer and homophobia no longer exists may not actually be an effective tool for young people who are struggling.

The study used data from San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project and looked at profiles of nearly 250 LGB teens. It measured how the teens coped with their sexual-minority status throughout adolescence. Researchers found three common coping mechanisms: Cognitive strategies (the “It Gets Better” blueprint), alternative-seeking strategies (changing schools or social circles), and “LGB-specific” strategies (joining a gay-straight alliance).

So what did they uncover?

“Our findings question the ’It Gets Better’ narrative that’s been given to LGB youth,” Russell Toomey, who led the study, says. “Asking youth to accept negative experiences as the only coping strategy potentially exacerbates stress.”

Exacerbated stress, of course, could potentially lead to even deeper depression and, god forbid, suicide.

Moreover, Toomey explains, alternative-seeking strategies (changing schools or social circles) often result in poorer adjustment, higher incidents of depression and lower self-esteem as it essentially labels the victim as the problem rather than addressing the deeper issue.

“Alternative-seeking strategies involve finding new spaces to thrive in, rather than coping with the space that you’re in,” he says. “Our results find that that’s associated with more depressive symptoms, less self-esteem and less satisfaction in life.”

Researches found that the most effective tool for helping LGB youth cope with bullying was the “LGB-specific” one (joining a gay-straight alliance). Young people who sought these sorts of groups reported better psychosocial adjustment and were more likely to graduate high school.

“Everybody needs support,” Toomey concludes, “and it’s really important, particularly in adolescence, to find other people who are like you, since you are going through, developmentally, a stage where you may frequently think that you’re the only one that’s experiencing whatever you’re experiencing.”

He adds, “Having a support group where other people look like you and experience the same thing as you is really important for health, well-being, development and sense of identity.”

Related: Awesome dad’s pitch-perfect note to his gay son’s bully goes viral

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  • DCguy

    The study says ““Asking youth to accept negative experiences as the only coping strategy potentially exacerbates stress.”

    The “It Gets Better” idea isn’t asking them to “Accept” negative experiences. It’s letting them know that they aren’t always going to be in this situation.

    The study suggests that “Joining a Gay Straight Alliance” is the best way to cope.

    Can somebody please give those researchers a shake and a slap. If your school has a gay straight alliance, you’re ALREADY IN A BETTER SITUATION THAN MANY OF THESE KIDS!

    Many of these kids are in places like Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc… and there isn’t a comforting gay straight alliance to go to. So yeah, it’s going to get better for them, might be what helps them get through the day, whether it’s of them dreaming of getting out and moving to a big city, or just not having to navigate the halls of their school every day.

    I don’t think the researchers hearts were in the wrong place, but they seem unaware of reality.

  • jimstoic

    I’ll say it succinctly: this is bullcrap. “It Gets Better” is not an alternative to other strategies; it’s the RESULT of those strategies.

  • oddchild1

    Can we stop calling it bullying and call it what it is; assault, stalking, harassment, sexual harassment, libel and slander. These are crimes or carry civil liability. It’s time we start telling LGBT+ how to defend themselves. We need to tell kids how to set up a self-defense argument; that if they feel threatened or fear for their safety they have a right to tell the perpetrator that they are going to walk away but if the perp persists then they will defend themselves; then when the little psycho persists knock his teeth in. If one of these little psychos puts their hand on them; they need to be reported to the cops. If cops refuse to prosecute, then take it into a civil court and sue the parents of these little sociopaths; cost them $10,000 and see if they don’t change their hell spawn’s behavior. Then in a separate case also sue the school; sue enough schools and see if they don’t start caring more about these issues.

  • dean089

    To me this campaign has always been more about the people participating more than the target audience. “It gets better.” Gee, why not just go old school and assure kids that there are no cares or worries in the afterlife — give it that Medieval realness. Kids are out there being beaten to death, sometimes by their own parents, and the best we can do is offer false hope wrapped in bleeding-heart good intentions. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    • Heywood Jablowme

      Uh… Even if a kid’s parents are beating him up, It Gets Better because after he turns 18 he doesn’t have to see them anymore.

      It’s not “false” hope, it’s hope. As an adult, a gay guy generally doesn’t get beaten up on a daily basis as he may have in 8th grade.

  • Danny595

    For whatever reason, a number of so-called “queer” activists have decided to make “It Gets Better” a target of their hate, and they look for any reason to discredit it. As we see here, the main way to discredit it is to lie about what it is. It is not a “solution” to bullying and suicide. It does not tell gay kids to accept bullying. It does not tell them not to join a GSA or not to use other coping strategies. It is simply a message to any kid who might be thinking that there is no hope and that this is the moment to commit suicide to end the suffering. In other words, the message is “Don’t make a permanent decision based on what you are feeling today because what you experience today will not continue forever.” That’s it. That’s the message. Shame on Graham Gremore for joining in the smear campaign.

    • inbama

      Bisexuals and transgenders have always had it in for Savage, and they’re still at it even though he’s now towing the party line.

  • Heywood Jablowme

    These critics of It Gets Better must have grown up in nice, safe places where they didn’t get bullied so they just don’t get it.

    To a great extent, teen suicide is a poisonous result of “social” media. As a bullied gay teen long ago, I was unaware that suicide was even much of a serious option. Teen suicide never made the news, and because of the lack of evil FB etc., once I left school in the afternoon the bullying was done for the day. I got the vague sense somehow that adult life WOULD be better, and that did help.

    Nowadays, thanks to anti-social media, anti-gay teen bullying is often a relentless 24/7 thing. So a online solution is totally appropriate. Bullied kids benefit from the messages from those who were once in their situation.

    Also I’m amazed at the critics’ distaste for changing schools (for instance). If I’d had the option to go to a different middle school I’d have jumped at the chance.

    As others point out, gay/straight alliances are not always possible to have. Gay/straight alliances are fine, no doubt, but a lot of us never had them and yet things DID get better for us.

  • smartoad

    They missed one coping strategy, staying way deep in the closet…

    • Heywood Jablowme

      If a kid is already being attacked as gay, by definition he is no longer totally in the closet. Granted, it’s not a fun way to become aware of one’s own sexuality. But it definitely ain’t the closet.

  • TTTTom

    Telling kids that “it gets better” is filling their already muddled minds with a delusion that only adds to their confusion.

    To succeed in life, people need to be told the truth, the sooner the better.

    It doesn’t get better. Try as we might, there will always be threats out there. To suggest that they magically go away as we age is setting kids up for a bigger fall later.
    Learning survival skills for the world we live in, not the world we want, is imperative.

    Until there’s a better world out there, telling people it gets better is lying to them. Eventual reality leads to resentment which in turn produces hurt and hateful people.

    The result? Not so gay after all.

    A world full of disgruntled deviants is a scary notion not to mention a horrendous loss to the individual and for society!
    How long should kids wait for it to get better? How long should the hate fester and build before eventually erupting?
    “It gets better” is a great slogan for maintaining the precious innocence of children however people who are struggling with who they are, especially sexually, are no longer children. Helping them face the reality, assisting them through their struggles into the adult world would be a greater service.

    How about Pride? Standing up and being proud of who we are. I think kids today should be taught to flower, not cower. The latter is simply a stepping stone, or a suggestion to seek, conversion therapy!
    It’s almost as if the movement has been co opted!

    If we’re not happy homos then we may as well relinquish the moniker. “It gets better” doesn’t make the gay go away, just the gays.
    I suggest replacing the slogan with “Indulge.” People invited to participate are a reward to all of us. Welcome them into the community. Suggesting they put it off until it gets better is shunning, or denying them. What a loss that is for all of us!
    Indulge. Be who you are today!

    • Donston

      I was always uncomfortable with “It Gets Better”. It’s a depressing slogan for starters. And, no, sometimes, oftentimes it indeed doesn’t get better for many either psychologically or socially. The reality has always been that being a gay male or trans person has always been the most isolating, ego damaging things to be and that’s not even including the bullying. There’s so much homophobia and internalized homophobia that the “pride movement” is all but dead. And while “indulging” can lead to accepting for some young people, it also can lead to narcissistic instincts and being used, especially if you’re “indulging” with closet cases or people much older than you are, which in turn can lead to unbridled bitterness, self-destructive behaviors and self-denial.

      The biggest problem is that so many schools still refuse to discuss sexuality from an orientation standpoint. That helps lead to an entire student body where there’s only one or two “known” homos, and that continues to feed into feelings of isolation. And since help is often not to be found in households and damn sure not in churches it leaves an individual in the lurch and frequently looking elsewhere.

      Respect is closer to being the answer. Respect for others but most of all self-respect. I’ve realized over the years that gay men have to garner a certain amount of self-respect and respect for other gay men to not only become self-accepting but also to gain true comfort or pride. If that respect doesn’t start developing at a young age there’s a pretty good chance that resentment, denial, a pained and conflicted ego and/or self-destructive behaviors will persist throughout adulthood. If you have self-respect and respect for other LGBT people it’s easier to combat the depression and conflicted ego that can come from bullying and feeling suppressed/isolated. That’s why it’s important to have fulfilling non-sexual relationships with people that are like you. Gay-gay alliances are more important than gay-straight ones. But that requires seeking out those relationships, which often can’t be found through Grindr or in clubs.

    • Heywood Jablowme

      Maybe there are always some “threats out there,” but it still certainly DOES get better than the 8th grade. Yes, “magically” I guess, simply via the aging process. And if a kid is being attacked as gay, by definition he is no longer totally in the closet. Everything you write is out of touch.

      “Welcome them into the community.” Well, duh, yeah – one way to do that is with It Gets Better videos! If they live in a rural area, they don’t have a physical “community” to join yet.

      Obviously you weren’t personally bullied, or not much anyway. Is your life really no better than it was in 8th grade? Come on, that’s ridiculous. Are your adult next-door neighbors literally beating you up as an adult because you are gay? Unless you live in Chechnya, I’m not buying it!

    • Donston

      “It Gets Better”. Sure. As in not getting your ass kicked every other day and constantly being called a faag. But what about being dismissed by your family and community? Religious guilt? The glares and name-calling that comes when you’re out with your significant other? Potential homophobia from co-workers. The self-hate/internalized homophobia that can develop after years of feeling lesser than. How overwhelming it can be being surrounded by “hetero-normalcy” and feeling like an outsider, feeling dehumanized because of it. Those things don’t just go away when/if you graduate high school. In fact, I’d say I had a much easier time in high school than when I went into the work force and was on my own in my early 20’s. Of course, I know that situation is fairly unusual.

      “It gets better” sets up extremely low expectations. I just think it’s a poor message to sell any group. I always have felt that way. It just sounds depressing as fck. That slogan’s not gonna pick up anyone who’s truly low.

    • Heywood Jablowme

      @Donston: But all that is still better than “getting your ass kicked every other day and constantly being called a faag.” You don’t seen to have thought this through.

      So what is YOUR message? That it NEVER gets better? Do you really think that’s not “depressing as fck”?

    • Donston

      The slogan itself is a downer. In fact, me and my younger gay cousin (who was a teenager during the height of this “movement’s popularity) made fun of the ads. It puts people into an immediate state of victim-hood, which if you’re dealing with some real sh*t doesn’t aid you. There were better, more truly uplifting things that could have been made.

    • Heywood Jablowme

      @Donston: Like what?

      Your suggestions about schools (etc.) are all very nicey-nicey but how long is all that going to take? Thirty or forty years? Not much help to anyone being bullied in 8th grade right now.

      The fact that you and your cousin had the clueless bad taste to make fun of IGB only proves you were never bullied (or very little). The extremely trivial, early gay adulthood problems you describe are insignificant by comparison. They don’t drive anyone to suicide the way middle school bullying does.

      As someone who WAS severely bullied as a teen, I don’t think the IGB slogan is a “downer.” And again, you don’t have a better one. What’s your alternative, It Never Gets Better? That’s NOT a downer? You sound delusional.

  • greybat

    As I child, I noticed that the Bullies had remarkably short fuses. My trick was to set them off in the presence of Authorities.
    Whoever was percieved as the Attacker, got sent to the Office for a paddling.
    I hear they don’t do that anymore. Too bad. It was hilarious!

  • Dan

    You basically just go from out of the frying pan and into the fire. You face discrimination from being a gay person in a straight world, then grow up and find your way into the gay community and face a whole new set of discrimination. So no, it doesn’t always get better.

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