Most kids are bullied at some point in their lives, but overweight children are more often the targets of bullies' slings and arrows. Now a new UF study reveals this frequently leads them to avoid situations where they have been picked on before, such as gym class and sports. The findings appear this month in the online edition of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
About one out of every five children is chronically bullied, said Eric Storch, Ph.D., a UF assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UF's College of Medicine and the study's lead author. Aside from causing its victims to avoid events where they might be teased, bullying also is linked to depression and loneliness.
Either way, bullying spells serious trouble for children's health, Storch said. Negative attitudes toward exercise can last a lifetime, making it more difficult for overweight children to lose weight and making it easier for them to become obese adults, he added.
"We found that as rates of peer victimization among overweight kids went up, rates of physical activity went down," he said.
"When you speak to overweight kids, one of the things you often hear is just this," he added. "Kids are targeting them. Kids are picking on them. You're going to end up avoiding those types of situations. The problem clinically is if kids are avoiding PE class or playing sports because of fears of negative peer relationships, their health status is affected."
Storch and researchers from pediatrics, psychiatry and the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions studied 100 overweight or at-risk-for-being-overweight children between the ages of 8 and 18 to find out how bullying affected their exercise. Several measures were used to assess how much of a problem bullying was for children and determine whether they were exhibiting signs of depression, anxiety or even behavioral problems as a result.
About one-quarter of the children reported significant problems with bullies during the two weeks preceding the study. The researchers also found links between bullying and depression, loneliness and anxiety, further explaining why their physical activity rates were low.
Bullying not only contributes to children avoiding situations where they could be subject to ridicule, such as sports or gym class, but also can lead to depressed feelings that keep children from wanting to take part in activities.
"When you think about it, it makes intuitive sense, when you consider the hallmark signs of depression - sadness, fatigue, lack of interest in things you used to like," Storch said. "When kids are having a tough time with peers, and struggling with depression, then this can translate to reduced rates of physical activity."
Teasing and the stigma of adolescent obesity can have a big effect on children, said Mitch Prinstein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"The kids in this study spanned a wide age range, but it's important to remember that at the onset of adolescence, peers become the most important social factor," he said. "How kids are viewed by their peers affects how they view themselves as they transition into adulthood."
But bullying is just one of the issues that affects how much exercise an overweight child gets. For example, positive support from family and friends can lessen the blows bullies inflict, and some parents insist their children exercise at home when they don't at school, Storch said.
The best thing parents, teachers and doctors can do is to figure out what is causing the problem and find a way to work around it so overweight children still get exercise, he said.
Schools should create a zero-tolerance culture for bullying and perhaps provide gym teachers with training on how to recognize bullying and intervene, the researchers say.
Doctors should keep peer problems in mind when assessing overweight children and take not only a medical history of the child but also a social history, so they can pinpoint the underlying problem and devise a solution, Storch said.
It's important to prevent the problem early before it gets worse, he added.
"Childhood is a time when we form many of our habits that we're going to hold over later," he said. "When one has multiple negative experiences that are centered around sports early on, this can often translate into adulthood with decreased involvement (in exercise)."