Feeling less safe in the neighborhood has been linked to youths’ lower physical activity and greater obesity, say study authors reviewing previous findings – but little has been done to measure the specific effect of feeling unsafe at school. With their new research, however, school bullying and unhealthy weight have been linked to each other.

two girls bullying another girlShare on Pinterest
Can bullying lead to obesity?

Whether feelings of being unsafe, including because of “victimization,” cause the obesity is a question obscured by the possibility that the reverse is also happening: bullies are picking on children already overweight or obese, “and this contributes to the perpetuation of the problem.”

It is a complex issue, add the researchers – but their study may have unpicked a “key role” of bullying, as well as finding links with poverty.

The authors, including senior contributor Dr. Tracie Barnett, of the University of Montréal-affiliated research centre at the CHU Sainte Justine children’s hospital in Québec, Canada, conclude:

  • Results suggest a “direct association between feeling safer and being less likely to be overweight or obese”
  • Youths who experienced chronic poverty “felt less safe at school and, in turn, were more likely to be overweight or obese”
  • Youths who experienced early and later childhood poverty “also tended to feel less safe than those who experienced no poverty, resulting in marginally significant indirect associations with weight status”
  • Youths who felt safer at school “also reported spending less time in front of screens.”

“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,” says Dr. Barnett, adding:

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.”

The concept of feeling unsafe at school may reflect “the overall social and physical environment of the school and the surrounding neighborhood,” say the authors, adding another potential complexity to the question of bullying. In addition to any experiences of victimization at school, feelings of safety may be affected by “personal traits,” too.

The researchers are keen to point out that feeling safe at school and being the victim of bullying “are not one and the same.” Dr. Carolyn Côté-Lussier, first author, explains:

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

“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.”

Rather than objectively measure school safety based on, for example, reported incidents of school violence, the researchers chose to focus their study on the students’ own recollections and feelings of safety.

They say that the evidence suggested “youths’ own perceptions are statistically and clinically more important indicators of stress,” and it is the feeling of being unsafe that “is associated with deleterious health outcomes.”

The study reviewed data provided by 1,234 youths who had just entered secondary school in Quebec. The high school students were asked about their feelings of safety there, and whether they had been verbally, socially or physically bullied.

Supplementary data from the children included family background and health behaviors, and teachers were also interviewed, to rate what the atmosphere was like at the school. They were asked, for example, if there were areas the youngsters were afraid to go to.

The findings linked to levels of poverty (defined as a family household income before taxes that fell below the official Canadian low-income threshold of the time) gave different results depending on the extent of the poverty over time:

  • Youths who experienced chronic poverty “were more likely to have an overweight or obese weight status than those who experienced no poverty”
  • Early and later childhood poverty “were not associated with weight status”
  • Youths who experienced chronic poverty, after taking account of weight-related behaviors, “continued to be more likely to be overweight or obese than those who experienced no poverty.”

The authors also noted that:

Youths who experienced chronic poverty report feeling unsafe at school mainly because of their increased experience of victimization. This finding is supported by evidence suggesting that youths in low-income schools face less favorable school environments, including an increased exposure to school violence.”

However, the study adds, for poverty in early childhood, feeling less safe was reported independently of victimization, “suggesting that additional psychosocial processes are at play.”

These youths may feel less safe, the paper says, “in part because of perceived vulnerability, which has been found to link poverty to feeling less safe among adults.”