Teenagers who report being bullied or harassed because of their weight, sex, race or socioeconomic status are significantly more likely to develop unhealthy and self-harming behaviors than their non-bullied peers, according to new research from the University of Minnesota.
The study also found that the risk of developing those behaviors increased along with the types of harassment experienced by the teens.
Most previous studies on the effects of bullying on a child’s mental and physical health have focused on specific types of bullying, particularly weight-related teasing or sexual harassment. Less is known about the health risks associated with other types of harassment — or about the cumulative effect that different types of bullying have on children.
This study, coupled with those previous studies, underscores the need for parents, educators, health providers and others to take the bullying of children seriously, say its authors.
“This may be one isolated study, but taken within the context of what is already known about harassment and its long-term effects, it really becomes important to start shifting away from the conventional wisdom that teasing, harassment, or whatever you like to call it, is a normative part of growing up,” said Michaela Bucchianeri, the lead author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher in the U’s School of Public Health. Bucchaineri spoke with MinnPost on Wednesday.
Teens came from the Twin Cities
For the study, Bucchianeri and her colleagues used data collected from Project EAT 2010 (Eating and Activity in Teens), a detailed survey of 2,793 teenagers who were attending 20 public middle and high schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area during the 2009-2010 school year. The survey was designed to capture a variety of measurements, including perceived harassment, substance use (cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana), self-harm behavior (such as cutting, scratching or burning), self-esteem, body satisfaction and depression.
The students were also asked to identify their race and/or ethnicity. Socioeconomic data was obtained from information provided by parents.
The teens were almost equally divided by gender (46.8 percent boys and 53.2 percent girls) and were racially and ethnically diverse (18.9 percent white, 29 percent African-American, 19.9 percent Asian-American, 16.9 percent Hispanic, 3.7 percent Native American and 11.6 percent of mixed or other race). Most (97 percent) came from low- or middle-income families.
The teens also had their heights and weights measured. About one-third of them were overweight.
What the study found
An analysis of the study’s data revealed three key findings.
First, all types of harassment examined in the study were linked to a broad range of negative health behaviors.
“We were surprised,” said Bucchaineri. “We had expected a bit more specificity. We had hypothesized certain things, like being teased about weight would be associated with poor body satisfaction. But we found a whole bunch of different associations.”
For example, being harassed about race or socioeconomic status also led to poor body satisfaction.
The researchers did find, however, that two types of harassment — weight teasing and sexual harassment — had particularly strong associations with specific negative health behaviors.
Weight-based harassment was most strongly associated with lower self-esteem and lower body satisfaction, and sexual harassment was most strongly associated with self-harm and substance abuse. These associations were found in both boys and girls.
Among girls, both weight-based and sexual harassment were also associated with depression.
The third key finding of the study involved the cumulative effect of harassment.
“We found that poor health and wellbeing really does increase with the number of harassment types that an adolescent is experiencing,” said Bucchaineri. “It seems that a boy or girl who is teased for, say, his or her weight and race is at greater risk for poor health than a peer who has experienced just one type of harassment, and is certainly at a greater risk than a peer who has not been harassed at all.”
A coping behavior
The study’s findings suggest that teens may be using unhealthy behaviors, such as substance use and self-harm, as coping responses to harassment, said Bucchaineri.
Parents, educators and physicians therefore need to be attuned to the possibility, she stressed, that a child who is exhibiting such behaviors may be experiencing bullying at school or elsewhere.
Parents and others can help, Bucchaineri added, by asking open-ended questions of their teen and listening carefully to any answers that seem “off.” If any type of bullying is identified or suspected, the teen should be connected with support and resources.
A good place to start, she said, is www.stopbullying.gov.
Bucchaineri also stressed that we need as a community to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward any level of harassment.
“We all have a responsibility to try and shift the culture away from teasing, harassment and bullying being accepted and OK,” she said.
The study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.