The Relationship Between Bullying and Childhood Obesity

Girl being teased by other girls
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Childhood obesity affects approximately one in three children and teenagers in the United States. Now, a number of studies are finding links between childhood obesity and bullying—and it appears that the relationship may go both ways.

Obesity and Bullying: A Vicious Cycle

Studies have found not only that being bullied may lead to obesity in children, but that the inverse is also true: children who are obese may be more likely to be victims of bullying.

In a study of 1,344 children assessed yearly from the age of 3 to the age of 10 as part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (QLSCD), researchers found that girls 6 years of age and older who had a higher body mass index (BMI) were more likely to be victims of bullying. The same did not appear to be true for the boys in this study, however.

In addition, the girls in the QLSCD study who experienced bullying were then found to be more likely to gain even more weight over time, which then led to more bullying.

Feeling Unsafe at School Leads to Weight Gain

In another study that used data from the QLSCD, researchers collected information on 13-year-olds’ self-reported feelings of safety, physical activity, and screen time (time spent in front of any screen, such as television, computer, smart phone, etc.). They also used statistical modeling to assess the poverty status of the youths’ families over time.

These researchers found that children who had been exposed to poverty expressed feeling less safe at school due to bullying—and these same children who felt unsafe were the ones who were most likely to become overweight or obese. The study authors note that the association was most pronounced for those youths who experienced chronic poverty.

In fact, compared with youths who experienced no poverty yet still felt unsafe, those who had experienced chronic poverty and also felt unsafe were nearly 18% more likely to be obese, suggesting a strong relationship between poverty and obesity.

Interestingly, although youths who reported feeling unsafe were also found to have higher levels of screen time, the amount of screen time in itself did not predict weight status in this study.

Poverty, Obesity, and Bullying

The above studies uncover complex factors that contribute to childhood obesity, indicating that poverty and bullying both may be playing a role in the development of childhood obesity, with the following vicious cycle at work for too many children: poverty leads to obesity and victimization by bullying; bullying leads to further weight gain; and that in turn leads to more bullying. As many in public policy search for ways to end the childhood obesity epidemic, these studies are shedding light on just how complicated the problem is.


Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA 2014; 311:806-814.

Qualter P, Murphy SM, Abbott J, Gardner KJ, et al. Developmental associations between victimization and body mass index from 3 to 10 years in a population sample. Aggress Behav 2015 Jan 14. [Epub ahead of print]

Cote-Lussier C, Fitzpatrick C, Seguin L, Barnett TA. Poor, unsafe, and overweight: the role of feeling unsafe at school in mediating the association among poverty exposure, youth screen time, physical activity, and weight status. Am J Epidemiol 2015 Apr 28. [Epub ahead of print]

Cote-Lussier C, Barnett TA, Kestens Y, Tu MT, Seguin L. The role of the residential neighborhood in linking youths’ family poverty trajectory to decreased feelings of safety at school. J Youth Adolesc 2014 Nov 12 [Epub ahead of print]

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