A good friend of mine has a son, who at 31, is severely overweight. Talking to him one day, I discovered he’d been bullied all through school because of a learning disability.
Looking back, he realizes now that the bullying severely impacted his education. He recognizes with the clarity of time that he didn’t take advantage of his educational opportunities because just walking through the halls of his high school was a battle every day.
The wounds from that bullying still sting years later.
He’s also dealing with a weight problem that is severely impacting his mobility, with worries by his family members that he is pre-diabetic or, possibly, diabetic at such a young age.
Unfortunately, this young man’s experience is anything but unusual.
In fact, a recent study has found that children who are bullied in school are nearly twice as likely to be overweight at the age of 18 than non-bullied children.
As I look back over all the years I’ve known this young man, I realize now that his weight problem began surfacing when he was in high school.
Previous research from scientists at King’s College London has shown that children who experienced bullying while growing up in the 1960s were more likely to be obese at the age of 45.
But the researchers said it was unclear whether these long-term effects were present earlier in life.
So in the latest study, the researchers set out to examine whether bullying would have similar effects on weight, given that it may take different forms today — such as cyberbullying — than it did in the 1960s.
The environment children grow up in today has also changed, with unhealthy food more readily available and sedentary lifestyles more common, the researchers noted.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the Environment Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, which followed more than 2,000 children in England and Wales in 1994-1995 from birth to age 18. They assessed bullying victimization in primary school and early secondary school through interviews with mothers and children at repeated assessments at the ages of 7, 10 and 12.
When the children were 18, the researchers measured their body mass index (BMI) and waist-hip ratio, an indicator of abdominal fat.
They found that 28 percent of children in the study had been bullied in either primary school or secondary school (defined as transitory bullying), and 13 percent had been bullied at both primary and secondary school (defined as chronic bullying).
Children who were chronically bullied in school were 1.7 times more likely to be overweight as young adults than non-bullied children (29 percent compared to 20 percent). Bullied children also had a higher BMI and waist-hip ratio at the age of 18, the researchers reported.
These associations were independent of other environmental risk factors — such as socioeconomic status, food insecurity in the home, child maltreatment, low IQ, and poor mental health.
In addition — and for the first time — the study’s analyses showed that children who were chronically bullied became overweight independent of their genetic risk of being overweight.
Finally, at the time of victimization, bullied children were not more likely to be overweight than non-bullied children, indicating that overweight children were not simply more likely to fall victim to bullying.
That was certainly true of my friend’s son, who was at a normal weight as a child.
“Bullying is commonly associated with mental health problems, but there is little research examining the physical health of bullied children,” said Dr. Andrea Danese from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London. “Our study shows that bullied children are more likely to be overweight as young adults, and that they become overweight independent of their genetic liability and after experiencing victimization.”
“Although we cannot definitively say that bullying victimization causes individuals to become overweight, ruling out alternative explanations, such as genetic liability, strengthens the likelihood that this is the case,” added Jessie Baldwin, also from the IoPPN at King’s. “If the association is causal, preventing bullying could help to reduce the prevalence of overweight in the population.”
“As well as preventing bullying, our findings emphasize the importance of supporting bullied children to prevent them from becoming overweight, which could include interventions aimed at promoting exercise and healthy eating,” Baldwin continued. “Our data suggest that such interventions should start early in life.”
While he is now actively working to get healthy, this young man no doubt would have appreciated — and benefited from — a much earlier intervention to stop the bullying.