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What is the link between bullying & weight?

Written by Dr. Kirsty Lee, University of Ottawa (@DrKirstyLee)

In Canada more than 30% of youth are bullied and for 10% it is a daily occurrence. We know that being bullied can be a very stressful experience that leads to problems in the future with mental health, social relationships, and academic success. So, is it possible to identify which children or adolescents are most likely to be targeted so that we can protect them? A lot of research suggests that young people who are overweight are more likely to be bullied than those who are not overweight. However, because of a number of flaws in prior research, we might not be getting the full picture. For example, most research has been cross-sectional, which means we only get a snapshot of the link between bullying and weight at one point in time.

My advisor, Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, and I set out to examine the link between bullying and weight using data that spanned seven-years across childhood and adolescence. The study followed a group of 631 Canadian children (54% girls) from when they were in Grade 5 up until Grade 11. This allowed us to examine whether children and adolescents who were overweight were more likely to be bullied, or whether the reverse might be true, that being bullied actually leads to excess weight. We also examined the role of body dissatisfaction (negative thoughts and beliefs about one’s body), as previous research has shown that bullying is related to how young people feel about their bodies.

The key findings of our study were that being overweight did not increase the risk of being bullied. Instead, youth gained weight as a result of being bullied by their peers. We also found that throughout the seven years of the study, being bullied consistently decreased body satisfaction, and that being bullied had an indirect effect on future weight gain through reductions in body satisfaction. Although in this study we did not examine the type of bullying that youth experienced, prior research has shown that most bullying is verbal and tends to focus on facial features and body size or shape (regardless of the actual body size or shape).

Our results highlight that we need to raise more awareness of how excess weight can be the result of adverse childhood experiences. The results also highlight that in addition to the more common signs of bullying, a child expressing negative comments about his or her appearance or gaining excess weight gain may have experienced victimization and could need support. Support could include a therapeutic intervention to manage body image issues and other common mental health problems experienced by youth who have been bullied, such as anxiety and depression, as well as a focus on the development of healthy coping techniques to avoid comfort or binge eating and further weight gain. If the bullying is ongoing, a school safety plan could help to protect the child from further harm.

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