Bullying exists, in spite of “zero tolerance” policies in schools and youth organizations. Bullying due to weight or body shape is among the most prevalent – and often ignored – forms of bullying. Being bullied can leave lasting scars, or worse. Substance abuse among teens appears to be a serious reflection of this reality.
According to new research just published by the American Psychological Association, bullying adolescents because of overweight, obesity or body shape issues appears to predispose them to alcohol or marijuana use. The study was conducted at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and the results published in the online journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
The research raises particular and concerning questions regarding overweight girls. The connection between appearance-related teasing and bullying and alcohol and marijuana use was strongest among this group. This compounds the psychological risk factors already seen in overweight, obese or alternately-shaped girls.
“This type of bullying is incredibly common and has many negative effects for adolescents,” said lead study author Melanie Klinck, BA, a clinical research assistant at the University of Connecticut. “The combination of appearance-related teasing and the increased sensitivity to body image during adolescence may create a heightened risk for substance use.”
“These findings raise larger issues about how society places too much emphasis on beauty and body image for girls and women and the damaging effects that may result,” said Christine McCauley Ohannessian, PhD, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, as well as director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and a study co-author.
“Schools and communities should specifically address appearance-related teasing in anti-bullying policies and substance-use interventions,” she said. “Parents particularly have a role to play in addressing this issue. There is some startling research showing that some of the most hurtful examples of weight-based teasing come from parents or siblings, so families should be kind when they discuss the weight of their children.”
Researchers studied 1,344 students aged 11 to 14, drawn from five public schools in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Each was asked if their fellow students, peers, siblings or even parents had teased or bullied them about their eating, weight or body shape during the six months prior to taking the questionnaire.
Overall, participants reported weight-based teasing at a 55 percent rate. Breaking it down further, 76 percent (3 out of 4) of overweight girls and 71 percent of overweight boys reported teasing/bullying. For those children who were not overweight, 52 percent of girls and 43 percent of boys reported similar teasing.
The participants were also asked to detail their alcohol and marijuana use, if any. Those kids who suffered frequent weight-based teasing exhibited higher alcohol and marijuana use, as well as binge drinking. When the researchers followed up six months later, this was still the case.
In previous research about teens and substance abuse, it was found that while boys exhibit greater drug and alcohol use in their teens and early adulthood, girls tend to begin using alcohol and drugs at a comparatively earlier age. The researchers concur with others who have studied the phenomenon in their belief that those trends are possibly connected to the social pressures felt by girls to adhere to unrealistic body image ideals. This pressure can lead to a reduced sense of self-worth. It can also contribute to eating disorders and lead to self-medication with drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism against the teasing and/or pressure to fit in with peers, Klinck said.
“The old saying that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is a fallacy that ignores the serious effects of emotional abuse and verbal bullying,” Klinck said. “Weight-based discrimination appears to be one of the most common and seemingly socially sanctioned reasons to bully or discriminate against someone. As a society, we need to address the damage caused by this, especially for girls.”
Bullying is a pervasive problem in America. There was a time when it was acceptable for the target of the bully to fight back and seek an end to the bullying. In the modern, “zero tolerance” era, that solution has been largely taken away from the bully’s targets.
If we’re not going to let our kids fight back, we need to be vigilant about preventing bullying and steadfast about educating children about why it’s unacceptable. Allowing it to happen while pretending to care and to have “zero tolerance” is not only irresponsible, it’s downright dangerous.
For kids with weight issues, bullying is often overlooked. Because we’re seemingly incapable of managing or ending the problem, we may be dooming a generation of kids to substance abuse, addiction or worse. Either end the bullying or make it alright for those kids to fight back and stand up for themselves. That, of course, is just one man’s opinion.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
Material Source – American Psychological Association
Journal Reference – Melanie Klinck, Anna Vannucci, Tessa Fagle, Christine McCauley Ohannessian. Appearance-related teasing and substance use during early adolescence.. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 2020; DOI: 10.1037/adb0000563