Children who were bullied in middle and high school are twice as likely to be overweight at the age of 18 than those who were not bullied, according to a new research conducted by scientists from King’s College London (KCL).
The cohort study led by Jessie Baldwin, a research student in the King’s College London, used data from the Environment Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study in which 2,232 children participated from England and Wales in 1994 to 1995 till the age of 18. The study analyzed bullying in primary and secondary schools through repeated interviews with children and their mothers when the children had reached the ages of 7, 10 and 12.
The E-Risk study aimed to collect data about children’s disruptive behavior due to environmental factors and how genetic influence and parental guidance affect their children’s psychological outcome. It was started in 1998 and included children of ages 5 to 7 years old. The data collection was finalized in 2014 with 93% of the original participants taking part in the completion of the study.
Previous studies carried by scientists from the same university had shown that children in the 1960s who had experienced bullying while growing up were more likely to be obese at the age of 45 although it was unclear whether these were long term effects of being victims of childhood bullying.
However, the environment children grow up in today is different from that in the 1960s, as availability of unhealthy food, low physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle are more common now.
When the children were 18 years of age, the researchers measured their body mass index (BMI) and waist to hip ratio, to measure obesity.
They found that 28% of children in primary or secondary school had been bullied and 13% of children had been victims of chronic bullying.
Being bullied in both primary and secondary school is defined as chronic bullying. And the children who were bullied chronically were 1.7 times more likely to be overweight than children who were not bullied in later years.
Therefore, bullied children had a higher BMI and hip to weight ratio.
These statistics were independent of social status like low IQ, genetic factors, economic status, food insecurity, child abuse and neglect by parents and mental health.
The researchers also found out that already overweight children were not likely to be victims of bullying indicating that thin children had a higher chance of being bullied.
The study was published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
The researchers point out that bullied children have mental health problems but there is little research highlighting the physical health of bullied children and their study shows a different side of bully victimization.
Jessie Baldwin says, “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.
Our data suggests that such interventions should start early in life.”
The Annual Bullying Statistics 2016 points that 1.5 million young people have been bullied the past year and 44% and 41% of them have depression and anxiety, respectively. In contrast, 33% of bullied people have suicidal thoughts.
How Does Bullying Affect The Physical And Mental Wellbeing?
There are different types of bullying: physical bullying, verbal bullying and non-verbal bullying, all of which lead to depression, anxiety, loneliness, insomnia, low self-esteem and lack of confidence.
All these effects of bullying are associated with the release of stressors higher than what is considered normal, which causes the victim to gain weight in addition to other physical changes.
Experts point out that the physical stress triggers the “flight and fight” response to protect you from danger. This in turn releases the stress hormone cortisol which raises your blood pressure and blood sugar levels while depressing vital functions like the immune and digestive system.
Due to these physical changes in the body, the person is likely to suffer from tension headaches, muscle pain, fatigue and intestinal problems like constipation and bloating.
The heart is also affected at some stage of life due to stressors in addition to the unhealthy habits adopted due to bullying, like drinking, smoking and high sugar and high fat foods.
A study points out that bullying also increases chronic, systemic inflammation in the body which goes all the way into adulthood.
The researchers collected blood samples from three groups: those who were only victims, those who were purely bullies and those who were both victims and bullies. The blood samples indicated varying levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for low-grade inflammation and a risk factor for various chronic diseases.
CRP levels rose in all groups as they reached adulthood but was highest in victims of bullying. Young adults who were both bullies and victims had CRP levels similar to those uninvolved in bullying while bullies had the lowest CRP levels.