KU study first to show weight-based criticism affects kids early in life

Both boys, girls affected; critiques can actually reduce physical activity

Everyone knows kids tease each other, but it turns out criticism from peers can affect a child’s self-esteem and shape their self-image before the awkward phase of adolescence.

A study authored by a KU faculty member, alumnus and upcoming graduate shows that weight-related criticism has an effect on how preadolescents view themselves. The study is among the first to show the effects at that early age.

Ric Steele

Ric Steele, associate professor of applied behavioral science and psychology, co-authored the study with Tim Nelson, who earned a doctorate in KU’s clinical child psychology program, and Chad Jensen, who will receive his doctorate next August. It will be published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

The researchers surveyed nearly 400 children in Lawrence’s Unified School District 497 in grades three through six. Using a set of pictures, they asked them to identify the child that they thought looked most like them. The pictures ranged from a very thin child to an overweight youth. They also asked which picture they thought they should look like. The authors gathered the children’s height and weight and body mass index as well.

They then asked the children how often they were verbally criticized about their weight. Even when controlling for body mass index, they found children that were criticized the most were in fact more likely to have poor body images.

“The findings were consistent with our hypotheses,” Steele said. “But it was a little bit of a stronger effect than I expected. In a related study we also found that criticism is a predictor for physical activity. The more criticized kids are, the less likely they are to be active, or involved in sports.”

General criticism, such as that directed toward a child’s clothes, was shown to have an effect on self-esteem, but not on activity.

The researchers say criticism at such an early age is often internalized and can lead to ongoing problems such as irregular eating habits and ongoing victimization.

“Our research suggests that this kind of criticism tends to increase the victim's body dissatisfaction, which has been shown to be a factor in poorer outcomes with pediatric weight management programs. It becomes something of a vicious cycle," Nelson said in an article on the study in Science News.

The research was conducted in 2008, while Nelson and Jensen were doctoral students at KU. Last year, they expanded their research by asking similar questions of a new sample of students, but gave students actigraphs to measure their physical activity throughout the school day. That data is just beginning to be analyzed, but it is being collected in hopes of finding ways of keeping kids more active during the day, and to help determine if increased activity can make a difference in the students’ body dissatisfaction.

“We can’t necessarily have three hours of PE per day, but how can we increase activity?” Steele asked. “One of the things I think the district really takes seriously is kids’ health.”

Nelson is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Jensen is on internship at Brown University and is seeking a faculty position. Steele said it is very gratifying to perform research with students, and see them go on to successful academic careers.

“They’re making really significant contributions to the literature,” he said.

Campus closeup
Alison Gabriele, assistant professor of linguistics


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