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Study finds link between bullies, eating disorders

Victims of bullying aren't the only ones to face health problems. A new study finds that bullies are twice as likely to display symptoms of bulimia.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

It turns out that, just like your mom probably told you, bullies aren't happy with themselves either.

According to researchers at Duke Medicine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, children who bully others are twice as likely to display symptoms of bulimia, such as bingeing and purging, when compared to children who are not involved in bullying, according to a press release. The findings, released today, are published in the December issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

We've known for many years that children who are bullied have a higher risk of suffering from anxiety, depression and eating disorders. The latest findings even surprised researchers, who analyzed interviews from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, a database with more than two decades of health information on participants who enrolled at age 9, according to the release. The numbers are not representative of the U.S. population, but provide a glimpse of how kids ages 9 to 16 - prime bullying years - could be affected.

“For a long time, there’s been this story about bullies that they’re a little more hale and hearty,” said lead author William Copeland, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, in the release. “Maybe they’re good at manipulating social situations or getting out of trouble, but in this one area it seems that’s not the case at all. Maybe teasing others may sensitize them to their own body image issues, or afterward, they have regret for their actions that results in these symptoms like binge eating followed by purging or excess exercise.”

The news reminds me of the advice that Thomas Ray, senior director of educational programming at the Poe Center for Health Education, shared last month. He said it's critical that adults work with both bullies and their targets when problems crop up. Adults need to consider why the bully is being aggressive, exploring the child's home life and whether he is dealing with any mental health issues, he said.

"Even when good kids exhibit inappropriate behavior, their goodness as a kid isn't the issue," Ray told me. "His behavior is the issue."

For the study, researchers looked at four groups of kids - children not involved in bullying; bullying victims; kids who had been both bullies and victims; and those who were only bullies.

According to Duke, children who were victims of bullying were at nearly twice the risk of displaying symptoms of anorexia (11.2 percent prevalence compared to 5.6 percent of children who were not involved in bullying) and bulimia (27.9 percent prevalence compared to 17.6 percent of children not involved in bullying).

Children who were both bullies and victims had the highest prevalence of anorexia symptoms (22.8 percent compared to 5.6 percent of the children not involved in bullying) and also the highest prevalence of binge eating (4.8 percent of children as compared to less than 1 percent of uninvolved children) and vomiting as a way to maintain their weight.

Still, the numbers were high for bullies, with 30.8 percent of bullies having symptoms of bulimia compared to 17.6 percent of children not involved in bullying.

“Sadly, humans do tend to be most critical about features in other people that they dislike most in themselves,” said Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of eating disorders at UNC-Chapel Hill and a co-author on the findings, in the release. “The bullies’ own body dissatisfaction could fuel their taunting of others. Our findings tell us to raise our vigilance for eating disorders in anyone involved in bullying exchanges -- regardless of whether they are the aggressor, the victim, or both.”

Copeland and others are continuing to study the long-term effects of bullying, looking at everything from financial outcomes to whether bullies or victims have genetic biomarkers.

“We want to do a better job of understanding why some people are able to experience the same things as others and be able to get through them without the same consequences,” Copeland said in the release. “We really need to understand the resilience in those who have been bullied. That can help us determine the children who are going to need the most attention, and how we can promote those traits in others to increase their resilience.”


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