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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

San Diego State University: Child Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Cohort Study

Research shows that sexual and gender minorities are found to experience an increased rate of adverse physical and mental health outcomes compared to heterosexual and cisgender individuals. For this reason, it is pertinent to analyze how these morbidities develop through the lifespan, starting with adolescents.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study aims to follow a cohort of 10,000 children aged 9-10 years into young adulthood to analyze biological and behavioral development. The goal of this overall study is to promote the health and well-being of children within communities. Earlier this year, data from the first 4,519 participants to this study was released. Dr. Jerel Calzo and Dr. Aaron Blashill, both San Diego State University researchers, used a subset of this data to analyze the self-reported sexual orientation and gender identity of participants as well as parental reports of sexual orientation and gender identity of their children. Their research results were recently published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Questions were asked if the participants identified as gay or bisexual, and if they are transgender, with the possible responses including: yes, maybe, no, and did not understand. The responses of “yes” and “maybe” were combined due to the fact that Drs. Calzo and Blashill stated both show “probable minority identity”. After this combination it was found that 1.26 percent of participants were found to be gay, bisexual, or transgender. Furthermore, it was found that 23.8 percent of the 9 and 10 year-olds who participated responded that they did not understand the questions. This misunderstanding could be due to many factors, such as, not having enough experience to endorse an identity, or simply not understanding the phrasing. Future research may need to develop differently worded questions for this age group. Dr. Calzo states that, “this is such an important stage, biologically and socially. At 9 and 10, youth – whether through their peers, media or parents – are beginning to be exposed to more information about relationships and interacting in the world. Even about sex. They may not see any of this as sexual, but they are beginning to experience strong feelings.” Dr. Blashill adds that, “For so long, social scientists have assumed that there is no point in asking kids at this age about their sexual orientation, believing they do not have the cognitive ability to understand. This is the first study to actually ask children about their sexual orientation this young. It is important to have a baseline to understand how sexuality develops and how it may change over time.”

Further analysis of this data found that 6.7 percent of parents surveyed believed that their child is “maybe” gay or bisexual, and 1.2 percent responded that their child is “maybe” transgender. Additionally, it was found that almost all children surveyed reported that they did not have “problems at home or school related to their minority sexual orientation or gender identity”.

Dr. Calzo believes that this data will be useful in fighting homophobia and transphobia. “If we can understand identity development earlier and can track development using large datasets, we can begin improving research and prevention around risk and protective factors,” Dr. Calzo states.

You can read the article in full here.