A new survey of teenagers in weight-loss programs found that 64% had been teased or bullied because of their weight, and although the lion's share of teasing came from their peers some of the perpetrators have included parents, teachers and coaches.
"Kids who are clinically obese are experiencing teasing and bullying, not just at school but at home. That means they have few sources of support or allies," said survey author Rebecca Puhl.
The findings have limitations. The researchers who conducted the survey didn't ask questions of similar teens who aren't overweight or obese, so it's not clear how much more likely they are to be teased or bullied than other kids who are like them. Another group of kids who can be targeted because of their weight - those who are extremely skinny - weren't included in the study.
And there's a complication: not everyone in the study is heavier than normal. The survey included teens who used to be overweight and attended weight-loss camps to get support to remain at a healthier weight.
How the study was done
Puhl, director of research at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, said other research suggests that obesity is a very common reason for bullying. However, she said, "weight-based bullying is often absent from the discussion. It hasn't been part of the national discourse on bullying. There's a real need to see this on the radar."
Researchers gave online surveys to 1 425 teens aged 14 to 18 who attended two weight-loss camps, and 361 completed the surveys. Seventy-one percent of those who responded were white.
Forty percent were clinically obese, 24% were overweight and the rest were of normal weight.
Sixty-four percent said they'd been bullied or teased at school because of their weight, but only 20% said it happened often or very often. The perpetrators included teachers (27%said they'd been bullied or teased at least once by a teacher), physical education teachers or coaches (42%) and parents (37%).
However, only 3% said they'd been bullied often or very often by a teacher. The number was 11% for parents and 6%for physical education teachers or coaches.
How does this compare to kids in general? Research suggests that overweight kids are teased and bullied three to six times more often than others, depending on the age group, Puhl said.
What to do?
"Pediatric medical providers, school personnel and educators can really help youth by putting weight-based teasing on the radar, and making sure this is being addressed on par with other forms of bullying," she said.
Dr Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital, said bullying itself is getting more attention as a serious issue. "There's a greater recognition that it can have significant short- and long-term consequences, both physical and emotional," said Schuster, who co-wrote a commentary accompanying the study. "Kids can be emotionally scarred for a long time, and they can carry this into adulthood."
What about the idea that teasing and bullying are normal, and kids will be kids? "There are always going to be all sorts of things going on that we as a society do not support," he said. "We can either look the other way, or say that's wrong and we want to help kids and the kids who are perpetrators."
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The study appears in the January issue of the journal Paediatrics.
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