Junkfood Science: Bullying: more than words that hurt

January 11, 2007

Bullying: more than words that hurt

Tolerance.org, an online anti-bias project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, AL, has just released a special edition of ABCs on Bullying, with extensive information and education materials for parents, teachers and all those who work with children.

They report that 66% of middle school children in our country say they are teased at least once a month, most targeted because they are different in some way.

...Words like 'stupid,' 'ugly,' 'fat' and 'dumb' may seem harmless among young children, but, over time, words become social weapons, deflating the self-esteem of developing egos. Once children internalize negative labels, they are more likely to underperform in school and grapple with related health issues well into adulthood.

Verbal bullying is often the entry point for other forms of bullying, like hitting and social exclusion. And, in recent years, bullies have found new tools, infiltrating cyberspace to torment peers.

Some school anti-bullying policies actually do more harm than good, reports Tolerance.org. To address these problems, they offer comprehensive guidelines for teachers on how to appropriately intervene and follow-up when bullying occurs, and warning signs to help parents detect when their child has become a victim of bullying. They also offer ideas for speaking up whenever people see examples of prejudice and discrimination.

The problem of bullying among children sometimes gets the reaction, “kids will be kids,” and that it’s nothing more than a right of passage. But the scope of bullying in American schools and its impact on the health of young people has been the subject of growing research and the findings indicate it’s worth taking more seriously.

Tonja R. Nansel Ph.D. and colleagues wrote in a recent Journal of the American Medical Association that nearly 1 in 5 children they surveyed report having been bullied during the school term. They found higher incidences of smoking and drinking, and poorer grades among both the children doing the bullying and those being bullied, compared to other children. They also found problems in the development of social relationships among the bullies and their victims, as both had greater difficulty making friends and were lonelier.

A recent Canadian Population Health Initiative-funded study, led by Ian Janssen, Ph.D. at Queens University, examined various forms of bullying and their incidences in relationships to children’s body weight status. They found 1 in 7 children are victims of bullying. “Obese” girls, aged 11 to 16 years old, were 90% more likely to be victims of physical forms of bullying than “normal” weight girls. Among fat boys this age, abuse took the form of verbal assaults and being excluded. By ages 15 and 16, however, the students became more like to participate in bullying. “Obesity is clearly linked to behaviors that alienate youth at a critical stage in their social and emotional development,” said Dr. Janssen.

The special stigma of fat children by their peers has been recognized for decades as a learned behavior that can be seen in kids as young as 3 years old. The studies done in the 1960s are classics. In them, children in public school and summer camp settings were asked to rank six pictures of children with different physical characteristics and disabilities in order of who they would most like for a friend. The picture of the fat child was ranked last by most of the children, after pictures of children with crutches, in a wheelchair, with an amputated hand and even with a facial deformity.

This study was recently replicated by Dr. Janet Latner, Ph.D., at the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and Albert J. Stunkard at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. They found that prejudice against fat children had worsened, increasing 40% over the past four decades. Today’s cultural efforts to increase acceptance of diversity have lessened stigmatization against those with some physical differences, said the researchers, but have not extended to weight.

Girls who are heavier are especially teased, stigmatized and called names by their peers, with 96% of fat high school girls describing such experiences in a small study at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The negative effects on children’s self-esteem have been extensively documented in the literature. If there is any doubt about the lasting effects of being tormented as a fat kid, the stories at “I was a fat kid, and here is my story” are heartbreaking examples of the pain fat children feel because of our culture’s pressures for thinness. This online “open diary about life as a fat child in our society,” says:

There is a special shame that only fat children know. Taught at an early age that they were unacceptable by societal standards, it wasn't a hard lesson to learn. No, the lessons were all around from the moment they became larger than “average.” There was no place to escape it...family, school and friends all provided pressure about the "problem."

[Photo: I was a fat kid, and here is my story]

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