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Obesity Puts Young Kids at Risk of Social Isolation

Study Shows Being Overweight or Obese Increases the Risk of Peer Problems in Kids by 15% to 20%
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 19, 2011 -- Obesity increases the risk that young children will become socially isolated by their grade-school years, a new study shows.

The study tracked more than 3,300 children in Australia for four years as they advanced from preschool through the early grades.

Families were recruited into the study in 2004 with a follow-up in 2008. At those times, measurements were taken of kids' heights and weights. Primary caregivers were interviewed in detail. Parents and teachers were asked to complete additional questionnaires that took stock of the children's mental health problems and their quality of life.

At 4 and 5 years of age, 13% and 16% of boys and girls, respectively, were classified by their weight and height as being overweight; about 5% of both sexes were obese.

Researchers found that kids who were obese compared to their classmates at ages 4 and 5 were up to 20% more likely to face difficulties in their peer relationships by ages 8 and 9 than normal-weight kids.

Difficulties reported by parents and teachers included teasing and rejection, trouble making friends, and not being included in social activities like birthday parties.

Those relationships remained when researchers adjusted their data to reflect the influence of other things that are known to affect social functioning, like mom's mental health and education, family income, and speaking a foreign language at home.

Researchers also saw no evidence of a chicken-and-egg phenomenon with social isolation and weight. That is, when they looked at children's mental and social functioning at ages 4 and 5, they found no evidence that kids who were showing signs of isolation or loneliness at that age were more likely than kids who were having normal social interactions with their peers to go on to become overweight or obese.

When Size Becomes a Stigma

The finding echoes previous studies in older children and adolescents that have found that those who are overweight and obese are more stigmatized, isolated, and disconnected from social networks than their normal-weight peers.

Study researcher Michael G. Sawyer, MBBS, PhD, professor and head of the Research and Evaluation Unit at the University of Adelaide's Women's and Children's Hospital in Australia, says in an email to WebMD that obesity may hurt children's mental health in a couple of ways.

"First, obese children may consider themselves to be the target of criticism, leading them to withdraw from peer activities," he says. And second, it is possible that adults model critical attitudes and behaviors about body size which are imitated by other kids at school.

The combination can leave kids feeling left out.

"These things are potential risk factors for later mental health problems," Sawyer says.

Experts who were not involved in the research praised the fact that it followed kids into their school years, when social interactions become important for self-esteem.

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