Trends related to young people’s experiences with hate speech

While the good news is that rates have declined since 1999, many youth continue to be harassed by these hurtful behaviors.

Parents, educators, youth workers and others who care about the health and well-being of young people may be interested in trends over the past few years related to students’ reports of being targets of hate speech. A recent report by Child Trends, a nonprofit organization that focuses on research related to children and youth, found that the proportion of teens who reported being targets of hate-related words declined from 13.2 percent in 1999 to 6.6 percent in 2013.

The trend is based on annual Indicators of School Crime and Safety reports, which are produced by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Those reports draw from a variety of sources that are designed to identify young people’s experiences with crime and safety at school related to issues such as bullying, drugs and alcohol and hate speech. To identify students’ experiences involving hate-related words, young people were asked if anyone called them an insulting or bad name at school having to do with their race, religion, ethnic background or national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

During 2013, young people were most likely to report being targeted by hate-related words related to their race or ethnicity, with rates of 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively. The Child Trends report stressed that a large part of the overall decline in the reported rate of hate speech was due to a reduction in the percentage of students who reported hate-related words related to gender, which fell from 2.8 percent in 1999 to 1 percent in 2013. Girls were significantly more likely to report being targets of hate-related words based on gender than boys.

As the report stressed, there are many ways that these experiences can negatively affect the health and well-being of young people. Those who are targeted may feel less safe at school, which can result in lowered academic performance or increased school absences. These experiences can also increase a young person’s feelings of anger, loneliness and powerlessness, as well as their risks for higher rates of depression, anxiety and other forms of victimization.

Although the percentages highlighted in the report may seem relatively small, they reflect the experiences of thousands and thousands of young people across the United States – some of whom might be part of your family, classroom or youth group. Consider asking the youth in your life for their thoughts about the prevalence of hate-related speech and other kinds of behaviors and actions that target people or groups based on race, religion, ethnic background or national origin, disability, gender or sexual orientation. During these kinds of conversations, keep the following in mind:

  • While hate speech often involves a blatant and intentional kind of hurtful behavior, it’s also important to think about the ways in which young people may experience more subtle – and sometimes unintentional – forms of discriminatory speech. Consider how common it is for people to use words related to gender (for example, “bitch”) and disabilities (for example, “retarded”) that are actually hurtful slurs based on these areas of identity. Help young people think about ways that hateful language has become normalized in many aspects of our media and culture, and challenge them (and yourself) to listen for and interrupt this kind of language. You may be interested in learning about the concept of microaggressions, which are defined as intentional and often unintentional slights and insults experienced by members of marginalized groups.
  • Given the prevalence and normalization of some kinds of hate speech, some young people (as well as some adults) may downplay concerns about the impacts of this language. Stress that both blatant and subtle forms of discrimination can negatively affect people’s physical, mental, emotional and social well-being in significant ways – especially when these experiences are a common and ongoing aspect of people’s lives. For example, a survey report recently released by the American Psychological Association found that acts of discrimination are associated with higher reported stress levels and poorer reported health, especially for people in marginalized groups.
  • If your child shares that he or she is being targeted with hateful language or actions related to an aspect of their identity, keep in mind that there are laws in place to protect the rights of young people within educational settings related to gender, race, color, national origin and disabilities. To learn more about these laws, refer to the articles titled What laws protect your kids’ civil rights in educational settings? and Title IX coordinators and their role.

Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of resources related to helping parents and other adults understand issues of bullying, bias and harassment in the lives of young people. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and inclusive settings.

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