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.”