Research has long shown that bullying has serious long-term effects for victims – everything from reduced self-esteem to a greater risk for heart disease, migraines, anxiety and many more devastating conditions. New research by scientists at Duke University Medical Center, however, has shown that both victims and bullies have a higher risk of anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

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The study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, involved 1,420 children, some of whom were involved in cases of bullying (either as bullies or victims) and others of which had not been exposed to bullying. The children were divided into four groups:

  1. Those who were not at all involved in bullying
  2. Those who had been both victims and bullies
  3. Those who had bullied others
  4. Those who had been victims

The findings showed that children in group 4 (victims) had a greater risk of developing an eating disorder. They were twice as likely to have anorexia and bulimia as those who had never been involved in a bullying situation. Anorexia involves extreme dieting and calorie counting, with victims losing a dangerously unhealthy amount of weight. Bulimia, meanwhile, involves bingeing and purging. Other common eating disorders include binge eating disorder (which does not involved purging) and EDNOS (Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified).

Children in Group 2 (those who had taken part in bullying behaviour but who had also been victims) actually had the highest rate of eating disorders – 22.8 per cent showed signs of anorexia nervosa, for instance, compared to only 5.6 per cent of children not involved in bullying). They also displayed the highest prevalence of binge eating.

Interestingly, Group 3 (those who had bullies) also showed that their behaviour had had a major impact on their mental health – around 30.8 per cent of bullies showed symptoms of bulimia, compared to 17.6 of kids who had not been involved in bullying at all.

Scientists believe that the reasons bullies are also more vulnerable to eating disorders, is the fact that bullying incidents often involved attacks on a victim’s body image. When bullies focus on issues like body weight and shape, it can be because they are unhappy with their own body image to begin with. This indicates that doctors and other health professionals should be vigilant with respect to the effects bullying can have on victims and aggressors alike.

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Eating disorders in schools with a higher proportion of girls

Elsewhere in news on eating disorders in children, scientist at Oxford University, UCL, the University of Bristol, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and those at the Karolinska Institute of Stockholm have found that the school children attend can influence their likelihood of developing an eating disorder. They found that girls who go to schools with higher percentages of female students and higher percentages of university-educated parents, were more likely to have an eating disorder. Scientists are at a loss at to why this is the case; they postulate that some schools may foster an ‘aspirational culture’, or that eating disorders can spread within closed environments such as schools. On the other hand, it could simply be that some schools could be more vigilant and apt at identifying children with a possible problem, ensuring they are diagnosed and treated.

Eating disorders in males

Further research also indicates that more males are being diagnosed with eating disorders. Although the emphasis of males tends to be different (i.e. they aim for a lean, ripped physique while females tend to focus on thinness), they, too, are increasingly being diagnosed for common eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. The problem is that males can be misdiagnosed, largely because of the false perception that eating disorders are a female issue. Males can also be reticent to obtain help out of a sense of shame, or because they are unaware that they actually have an eating disorder.

Photo credit: Libero Network

Photo credit: Libero Network

All the above research is a wake-up call to the need to be more aware of the prevalence and effects of eating disorders. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all eating disorders, but even those who overcome this devastating condition can have problems with their digestive system, bone health, heart, etc. Some of the most successful therapies for eating disorders include family therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. It is vital that patients receive a diagnosis as soon as possible, to increase their chances of a successful outcome.