Childhood obesity – a growing problem

Childhood obesity is an increasing problem in Australia. Studies suggest that three times as many children are overweight or obese now than 30 years ago. Current estimates in Australia suggest about 20% (1 in 5) children are overweight or obese. There are many complications of children being overweight. These children suffer from a range of short-term psychological problems including bullying, isolation and poorer self-esteem. In addition, there are many long-term physical problems with their heart, bones, hormones and reproductive organs. Most concerning are the links to early onset of type 2 diabetes and heart diseases – which are leading causes of death in Australia. Children who are overweight or obese are also more likely to be of poorer socio-economic status as adults. Australian research also shows that being overweight as a child is a strong predictor of obesity in adulthood.

What is the link between bullying and obesity?

A recent study in Perth confirms that overweight or obese children are more likely to be bullied than normal or underweight children. In fact, being overweight is a risk factor for being bullied. (Learn more about childhood bullying.) Researchers have now begun to study the relationship between overweight or obese children and different forms of bullying. A study in Canada (which has a similar school system to Australia) showed that overweight and obese children where at increased risk of several types of bullying. Overweight or obese children are more likely to be teased by other children verbally (e.g. name-calling), physically bullied (in boys) and have difficulty because other children stop being friends with them or spread rumours about them. Other children often judge overweight kids with a negative stereotype and associate them with being lazy, selfish and mean because of the way that they look. Both boys and girls who are overweight or obese are more likely to be bullied at primary school because they do not fit into the normal physical stereotype. Obese children are also more likely to be the perpetrators of verbal bullying to other children. By bullying other kids however, overweight or obese children can divert attention away from being bullied themselves. In boys particularly it is presumed this is because they are physically bigger than other children, and therefore can be physically dominant (i.e. pushing). In girls however, there is no advantage in being physically bigger than other children because most bullying is by name-calling (verbal) and relationship bullying.

What should parents know?

Understanding the link between bullying and long-term psychological problems in children is important. (Learn more about childhood bullying) When a child is overweight or obese, parents should understand that these boys and girls are at increased risk of being bullied. When a boy is overweight he is more likely to bully other children also. This is important to recognise because there are negative social outcomes for bullies too. They tend to grow up with difficulty forming adult relationships and also suffer from an increased risk of depression. Recognising the signs of bullying in a child is an important step in breaking the chain of negative outcomes. Some signs to be aware of include; increased stress, depression, unexplained bruising, recurrent abdominal pain and vomiting, frequent or repeated accidents, hyperventilation, submissive behaviour and school refusal. If you have concerns about bullying seek advice from the local school or a doctor/paediatrician. Many schools have anti-bullying campaigns in place. Studies prove that school-based interventions to reduce bullying are effective. However, the best way to approach this growing problem of bullying in overweight children remains an area of future research.

More information

Obesity and weight loss
For more information on obesity, health and social issues, and methods of weight loss, as well as some useful tools, see
Obesity and Weight Loss.
Living with obesity
For more information on living with obesity, including discussing obesity with friends and loved ones, obesity and its cost on the workplace and links between obesity and pain, sexuality, fertility and depression, see Living with Obesity.



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