Obesity a Predictor of Bullying in Early School Years

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The January 14th death of Massachusetts teen Phoebe Prince highlighted to the world about the high incidence of bullying in teens, but a new study shows that it can and does start earlier with one of the greatest predictors being the child’s weight.

Researchers from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor studied 821 children in elementary school ages 8 to 11 who had given reports of being bullied. The odds of being bullied were about 63% higher for an obese child, compared to a healthy-weight peer.

Obesity alone was a predictor of children being picked on in the third, fifth, and sixth grades. Weight status played a larger role than other factors such as gender, race, socioeconomic status, or academic achievement.

Lead author Julie Lumeng says that the results surprised her. "Unlike in the 1980s," she explained, "so many kids are obese now. In some schools, half the class may be overweight... so I really thought that maybe being obese really doesn't result in being bullied as much anymore. I was wrong."

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Previous studies have shown that even children carry a stereotypical idea about those who are obese. “This study speaks to the deep prejudice against children who are obese," says Lumeng, an assistant professor of pediatrics at U-M. "They are viewed as lazy and lacking in self-control, but we know the reasons for obesity are so much more complex than that."

Because bullied children experience more depression, anxiety and loneliness, such as the case of Ms. Prince, parents who fear that their children, particularly those who are overweight or obese, are having social difficulties with their peers should “keep the door open so that your child will feel comfortable talking to you about how other kids are treating them,” says Lumeng.

Dr. Matthew Davis, director of the CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at U-M says that adults should also “model good behavior by not making negative comments about other people’s weight.”

Schools can help with interventions that address obesity as well as bullying within schools.

Source reference:
Lumeng J, et al "Weight status as a predictor of being bullied in third through sixth grades"Pediatrics 2010; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-0774.

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