Weight-Based Bullying Linked to More Alcohol, Cannabis Use in Teens
Teens who are bullied about their weight may be more likely to use alcohol or cannabis compared to their non-bullied peers, according to a new study published online in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
“This type of bullying is incredibly common and has many negative effects for adolescents,” said lead study author Melanie Klinck, B.A., a clinical research assistant at the University of Connecticut. “The combination of appearance-related teasing and the increased sensitivity to body image during adolescence may create a heightened risk for substance use.”
The association between appearance-related teasing and substance use was strongest among overweight girls, raising special concerns about this group.
“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,” said Christine McCauley Ohannessian, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, as well as director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and a study co-author.
“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,” she said.
The study, which was carried out at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, involved a survey of 1,344 students, ages 11 to 14, from five public middle schools near Hartford, Connecticut.
The adolescents were asked if their siblings, parents or peers had teased them about their weight, body shape or eating during the previous six months. More than half (55%) of the overall participants reported weight-based teasing, including three out of four overweight girls (76%), 71% of overweight boys, 52% of girls who weren’t overweight, and 43% of boys who weren’t overweight.
The students also reported any alcohol and cannabis use. The findings reveal that frequent weight-based teasing was linked to higher levels of total alcohol use, binge drinking and cannabis use. In a follow-up survey six months later, the researchers found that weight-based teasing was still linked to total alcohol use and binge drinking.
Prior research has shown that boys tend to exhibit greater substance use in their teens and early adulthood, but girls begin using alcohol and drugs at an earlier age compared with boys.
Those trends may be tied to the societal pressures for girls to adhere to unrealistic body image ideals, say the researchers. These often unattainable standards can damage girls’ sense of self-worth and contribute to eating disorders and self-medication through substance use in order to cope with teasing or fit in with their peers.
“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,” Klinck said.
“Weight-based discrimination appears to be one of the most common and seemingly socially sanctioned reasons to bully or discriminate against someone. As a society, we need to address the damage caused by this, especially for girls.”
Pedersen, T. (2020). Weight-Based Bullying Linked to More Alcohol, Cannabis Use in Teens. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/02/26/weight-based-bullying-linked-to-greater-alcohol-cannabis-use-in-teens/154498.html