School Bullies and Their Victims Both Face Greater Risk of Eating Disorders than Peers

School bullies are twice as likely as their peers to display signs of bulimia, researchers have found
School Bullies and Their Victims Both Face Greater Risk of Eating Disorders than Peers

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Victims of bullying have long been considered at risk for eating disorders, but new research indicates that their aggressors are also troubled by body image issues.

Children who bully their peers are twice as likely to display signs of bulimia — like bingeing and purging — than their peers, according to new research from Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

The study, which relied on interviews of 1,420 students, found that both bullies and their victims were roughly twice as likely as their peers to be at risk for eating disorders.

Victims of bullying and peer abuse were twice as likely to show signs of anorexia and bulimia, while children involved on both sides (sometimes instigators and sometimes victims) were most at risk for anorexia (22.8 percent versus 5.6 percent of children not involved in bullying at all. This group of children also had the highest prevalence of binge eating (4.8 percent compared to one percent of students not involved in bullying).

What surprised researchers, however, were the findings on the bullies themselves, to whom researchers had previously attributed a certain measure of fortitude.

“For a long time, there's been this story about bullies that they're a little more hale and hearty,” said the paper’s lead author, William Copeland, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. “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.”

School bullies, researchers found, had a prevalence of bulimia symptoms of 30.8 percent, compared to 17.6 percent of their uninvolved peers.

“Sadly, humans do tend to be most critical about features in other people that they dislike most in themselves,” said Cynthia Bulik, a co-author and a distinguished professor of eating disorders at the UNC School of Medicine. “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.”

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