Heavy kids more likely to bully, be bullied

Overweight children are more likely than their peers to be the victims, and in some cases the perpetrators, of teasing, name-calling and physical bullying, a study released Monday suggests.

Canadian researchers found that, in general, overweight and obese 11- to 16-year-olds were more likely than their thinner classmates to fall victim to a bully. On the other hand, heavy 15- and 16-year-olds - boys and girls alike - were more likely to be the bully than were average-weight teens.

Whether these older kids are “retaliating” for having been bullied at a younger age is unknown, according to the study’s lead author, Dr. Ian Janssen of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

What does seem clear, he and his colleagues report in the May issue of Pediatrics, is that overweight children are more likely to be involved in bullying than normal-weight children are.

“Anyone who goes onto a playground would probably see the same thing, without conducting a study,” Janssen told Reuters Health.

Still, the new findings - based on a World Health Organization survey that included 5,749 Canadian school children - help highlight another dimension of the ill effects of the growing obesity epidemic in many Western countries, according to Janssen.

Besides escalating rates of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other physical problems, overweight children and teens may often face the psychological and social effects of bullying, he noted.

A recent U.S. study of bullying in middle schools found that victims were more depressed, anxious and socially isolated than their classmates, while the bullies themselves were often considered “cool” by their peers.

The WHO survey used in the new study asked students about various forms of bullying, including physical abuse, teasing and name-calling, sexual harassment, racial aggression and “relational” bullying - a form of bullying more often attributed to girls that includes excluding other children from a group and spreading rumors about others.

Overall, nearly 12 percent of the Canadian students surveyed said they had been bullied at least two or three times a month for the past two months. Almost nine percent admitted to being bullies, and three percent said they had been both a bully and a victim several times in recent months.

The researchers found that the prevalence of victimization increased in tandem with weight. Fourteen percent of overweight children and 18.5 percent of obese children reported being bullied, compared with just under 11 percent of normal-weight kids.

Across all ages, obese girls were two to three times more likely than normal-weight girls to have been bullied, and the abuse included both verbal and physical aggression. In contrast, obese boys were more likely than their peers to be teased or ostracized, but not to be hit, punched or shoved-a gender difference Janssen called surprising.

In fact, overall, he said, the relationship between being overweight and being bullied was “much more apparent” among girls than boys.

At the other end of the spectrum, heavy 15- and 16-year-old boys and girls were more than likely leaner students to be bullies themselves, the researchers found. These teens, Janssen said, tended to make fun of other kids on the basis of race and ethnicity. Whether they were targeting such “visual” characteristics of other kids in retaliation for being teased about their own appearance is unknown, Janssen noted.

The findings, he said, help “bring to light” the importance of body weight as a target for bullying, and suggest that schools’ efforts to prevent bullying need to address the problem.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, May 2004.

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD