Mobbing leaves scars not only on the soul. Children that are mobbed at school frequently become overweight.
The daily school routine can be merciless; children are equipped with a wide repertoire of bitchiness and cruelties when dealing with their peers. Many children are frequently attacked, hurt, bullied, isolated, or ridiculed. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly every tenth child becomes a victim of aggressive behaviors from their peers. Who is affected is often determined by chance. But the results of mobbing can be observed even years later. For instance, mobbed children have a higher risk of suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental diseases as adults.
The somatic consequences of mobbing, instead, are far less well investigated. A study from King’s College London now shows that children who have experienced mobbing at school are frequently overweight. By 2015 the researchers had shown that children that grew up in the 1960s and were mobbed at that time were specifically often overweight at age 45 (1).
In their new study (2) — published by the group led by Jessi Baldwin and Andrea Danese in the medical journal Psychosomatic Medicine — they wanted to know whether mobbing still exhibits a strong influence on body weight nowadays. Since the environment in which today’s children grow up has changed; unhealthy food is much more easily available, and children today are much less bodily active, as the scientists assumed. They also were interested to see how early an effect on weight might be seen.
For their investigation, the researchers followed more than 2,000 twins born in 1994 and 1995. At the ages of 7, 10, and 12 years, the twins, as well as their mothers, were questioned about any experienced mobbing. When the children were 18 years old, researchers calculated their body mass index (BMI) in addition to the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). Not only is weight important for one’s health, but also where the fat has accumulated is important. The larger the WHR, the more fat is located at the belly, and this indicates a higher risk.
Through questioning, it became evident that 28% of children had experienced mobbing either in primary school or at higher school levels, and around 13% claimed having been mobbed at all levels. As the data show, these children have a much higher likelihood of being overweight later on. The strongest association was found in a group of children that were mobbed specifically frequently and long — this led to obesity in 29% of cases. In children that were not mobbed at all, this was only 20 percent. Mobbed children had, furthermore, a higher BMI as well as a higher WHR when they were 18 years old.
Now, one could speculate whether these children had already weight problems before, and this may have been the reason for their mobbing and isolation. However, the data underscore a different picture: Children that were mobbed were initially obese to the same degree than children that were not mobbed at all.
The scientist also wanted to test whether the social status or origin and children’s health had an influence on the results. By comparing the twin pairs with each other they could demonstrate that a genetic predisposition for obesity did not affect the mobbing risk at all. In fact, mobbed children frequently grew up in a difficult environment and often had psychological problems. These factors, however, seem not to be responsible for the mobbing or for the overweight. When these and other factors were (statistically) taken into consideration, the association between mobbing and weight gain persisted.
As Andrea Danese, one of the authors of the study, points out in a press release, the study shows that mobbed children are more likely to become obese, independent of their genetic risk. They hope that their study contributes to a better protection against mobbing, and this, they say, should start quite early in the life of children.
This is part 12 of a series covering twin health provided by Paul Enck from the Tübingen University Hospital and science writer Nicole Simon. Further studies in twin research can be found at TwinHealth website.
- Takizawa R, Danese A, Maughan B, Arseneault L. Bullying victimization in childhood predicts inflammation and obesity at mid-life: a five-decade birth cohort study. Psychol Med. 2015 Oct;45(13):2705-15.
- Baldwin JR, Arseneault L, Odgers C, Belsky DW, Matthews T, Ambler A, Caspi A, Moffitt TE, Danese A. Childhood Bullying Victimization and Overweight in Young Adulthood: A Cohort Study. Psychosom Med. 2016 Nov/Dec;78(9):1094-1103.
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