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Taunts can haunt obese children

New studies identifiy emotional costs, find that a health report card could help parents.

August 18, 2003|Elena Conis | Times Staff Writer

Obese children face well-known risks to their physical health, but they're also in danger of developing serious social and emotional problems. Two new studies have found that they're more likely to be teased and to have smaller social networks than their non-overweight peers.

Another report has established that schools may be able to help parents gain control of their children's weight problem by sending out health report cards. The studies are among a recent spate of research focusing on childhood obesity. With the problem on the rise-- 15% of people age 6-19 were overweight in 2000, according to federal statistics-- researchers have been attempting to study the effects of the problem and what to do about it.

In a survey of more than 90,000 teens, researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey found that overweight students were 70% less likely than their healthy-weight counterparts to be listed as friends of their peers. Although the overweight students listed classmates as their friends, the "friends" didn't reciprocate.

In another study, University of Minnesota researchers surveyed nearly 5,000 middle- and high-schoolers in urban Minneapolis-St. Paul and found that adolescents who were teased by peers and family members were highly likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies, suffer low self-esteem and feel depressed.

More than half the teenage girls who reported being teased about their weight by friends and family said they had thought about suicide, and close to a quarter of them reported attempting to take their own lives.

"Teasing is not as harmless as people think it is," said study author Marla Eisenberg, a research associate in the schools of public health and medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "There's a tendency to say, 'Get over it, it's no big deal.' But it really is a big deal. It can have profound effects."

Eisenberg said weight-based teasing is not always clearly derogatory.

It can include seemingly innocuous comments such as "Are you really going to order dessert tonight?" which can be just as hurtful, she said.

Both studies were published in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Among the other obesity-related reports in the issue was one that assessed the effect of health report cards.

The cards--reports detailing students' height, weight and fitness test scores-- have been controversial. Parents objected when school districts in Pennsylvania, Florida and California sent the cards home, but some public health experts are convinced they're an effective tool for alerting parents to their children's health problems.

Dr. Karen Hacker, executive director of the Institute for Community Health, one of several organizations that studied the report card program in Cambridge, Mass., said the cards are one way schools can get parents to help their kids maintain a healthy weight.

The Cambridge research group designed the cards with input from parents, teachers and school administrators. The response, as a result, was positive, said study author Robert McGowan. Parents of overweight children who received the information were twice as likely as other parents to know their children's weight status and three times as likely to make plans to get medical help to control their children's weight. Only one parent, he said, called to complain about the nature of the information collected by the school.

A follow-up study by researchers at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., is investigating children's reactions to health report cards.

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