Feeling Unsafe at School, Poverty Tied to Childhood Obesity

Feeling unsafe at school and growing up in poverty are both linked to a greater risk for childhood obesity, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Montreal and its affiliated Research Centre at CHU Sainte Justine children’s hospital.

“Childhood obesity is caused and sustained by a complex range of factors. Our research reveals a complex intertwining of feelings of being unsafe and poverty with obesity,” said senior author Dr. Tracie Barnett.

“Surprisingly, we have found that although victimization at school is linked to childhood obesity and more screen-time, screen-time itself was not correlated with obesity. This suggests a key role for feeling unsafe and victimization in perpetuating obesity.”

For the study, researchers looked at data provided by 1,234 Quebec children who had just entered secondary school. The students were asked about their feelings of safety at school and whether they had been verbally, socially or physically bullied.

In addition, teachers rated what the atmosphere was like at their school — such as whether there were areas the students were afraid to go to, for example.

“Youth who experienced chronic poverty were more likely to be overweight than those who hadn’t, yet these youth tended to have higher levels of physical activity, possibly due to lesser use of car transport,” said author Dr. Caroline Fitzpatrick.

“Other factors such as feeling unsafe and being victimized at school helped explain underprivileged youths’ increased probability of being obese or overweight.” The team also found that boys were more at risk of feeling unsafe and being victimized at school than girls.

Furthermore, victimization at school may be a particular problem for youth living in poverty.

“Youth living in long-term poverty mainly report feeling unsafe at school due to their victimization,” said co-author Dr. Carolyn Côté-Lussier.

“However, youth who had experienced poverty in early childhood felt unsafe regardless of bullying, which may be due to feelings of vulnerability brought on by poverty or the effects of long-term stress on mental and physical health, a process referred to as allostatic load.”

“Our results suggest that there is also a family transmission of weight status, which underscores the prohibitive role of family poverty in terms of youth opportunities to adopt behaviors that will enable them to achieve healthy weights.”

“Part of the aim of this research is to identify population-level factors that can be targeted to improve youths’ feelings of safety,” explained Côté-Lussier.

“It may be difficult to reduce specific instances of bullying, but some of our research suggests that increasing neighborhood greenery and reducing disorder can improve youths’ perceptions of safety at school regardless of bullying.”

Barnett says the results demonstrate the need to address multiple environmental factors in order to fight childhood obesity.

“Increasing youths’ feelings of safety at school is one potential intervention amongst many that could buffer the relationship between poverty and being overweight,” she said.

“In addition to targeting actual school violence, a youth’s perception of safety at school might be increased by improving the neighborhood environment, his or her relationship with teachers and by encouraging a climate of respect and appreciation in the school as a whole.”

Source: University of Montreal