A study of preteen friendships in the Netherlands has revealed some rather depressing findings. Researchers found that overweight children were less likely to have reciprocal friendships, are more likely to be excluded from friendships and be disliked by peers.
Researchers from Keck School of Medicine at USC found that overweight children had several peers who they called friends but unfortunately their feelings of friendship were not returned.
These negative interactions affect a child’s physical, mental and social wellbeing, according to Kayla de la Haye, an assistant preventive medicine professor and lead author of the new study.
She warns that these disturbing findings are indicative of a “fat-shaming” culture in our society.
"Our finding is alarming because if we continue to have social environments where fat shaming is the norm, these kids will continue to be ostracised," de la Haye said. "Those adverse interactions increase the risk of loneliness, depression, poor eating habits and illness."
On average overweight children listed as many people as friends as those of average weight but were still 1.7 times more likely to be disliked by peers and 1.2 times more likely to dislike their peers.
The research was carried out using questionnaires. 504 preteens between the ages of ten to 12 participated. Participants in 28 classes listed their best friends and their enemies. On average, 26 students participated per classroom.
Researchers used body mass index measurements to assign children to different weight categories. 16 percent of children who participated were classed as overweight.
Gender was controlled for because it can steer friendships at this age.
On average, they found most children were classed as a friend by five classmates and an enemy by two. However, overweight children were only listed as a friend by four classmates and as an enemy by three.
Unfortunately, this social exclusion can result in a downward spiral for overweight children.
“The resulting social isolation may also promote unhealthy behaviours, such as excessive food intake and decreased participation in sports and physical activities, which can lead to further weight gain and thus a cycle of poor physical and social outcomes,” the study said.
De la Haye said it was important to tackle the social exclusion faced by these youngsters.
"We want to reduce the stigma of being overweight," she said. "We have anti-bullying campaigns based on sexual identity, race and ethnicity. We should do more to integrate obesity in our anti-bullying repertoire."