A new study published online in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors has found that teens who are bullied over their weight are more vulnerable to alcohol or marijuana addiction than those who are not bullied over their weight.
Lead study author and clinical research assistant at the University of Connecticut, Melanie Klinck, said, “This type of bullying is incredibly common and has many negative effects for adolescents.”
“The combination of appearance-related teasing and the increased sensitivity to body image during adolescence may create a heightened risk for substance use,” she added.
The researchers found that the association between weight bullying and substance use was strongest among obese girls.
Study co-author Prof. Christine McCauley Ohannessian said, “These findings raise larger issues about how society places too much emphasis on beauty and body image for girls and women and the damaging effects that may result.”
Prof. Ohannessian is also the director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. She said, “Schools and communities should specifically address appearance-related teasing in anti-bullying policies and substance-use interventions.”
“Parents particularly have a role to play in addressing this issue. There is some startling research showing that some of the most hurtful examples of weight-based teasing come from parents or siblings, so families should be kind when they discuss the weight of their children,” Prof. Ohannessian added.
The researchers looked at more than 1,340 students between the ages of 11 and 14, from five public middle schools near Hartford, Connecticut. The participants were asked whether they were teased about their weight, body shape, or eating habits.
Nearly 50 percent of the participants reported weight-based teasing. More than 75 percent of overweight girls and 71 percent of overweight boys reported weight-related bullying. The participants who were bullied about weight also reported alcohol and cannabis use.
The findings suggest that teens exposed to frequent weight-based bullying are more likely to use alcohol and cannabis. After six months of the survey, the researchers discovered that weight-related bullying was still linked to alcohol use and binge drinking.
Previous studies have shown that boys are more vulnerable to substance use in their early adulthood but girls start using drugs and alcohol at a much earlier age than boys do.
The researchers explained, “Those trends may be tied to the societal pressures for girls to adhere to unrealistic body image ideals.”
Klinck said, “The old saying that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is a fallacy that ignores the serious effects of emotional abuse and verbal bullying.”
“Weight-based discrimination appears to be one of the most common and seemingly socially sanctioned reasons to bully or discriminate against someone,” she added. “As a society, we need to address the damage caused by this, especially for girls.”