Background: Adolescent bullying is associated with a range of adversities for those who are bullied i.e., victims and bully-victims (e.g., those who bully others and get victimised), including reduced psychological functioning and eating disorder symptoms. Bullies are generally well-adjusted psychologically, but previous research suggests that bullies may also engage in problematic diet behaviours. This study investigates a) whether adolescents involved in bullying (bullies, victims, bully-victims) are at increased risk of weight loss preoccupation, b) whether psychological functioning mediates this relationship and c) whether sex is a key moderator.
Method: A two-stage design was used. In stage 1, adolescents (n = 2782) from five UK secondary schools were screened for bullying involvement using self and peer reports. In stage 2, a sample of bullies, victims, bully-victims and uninvolved adolescents (n = 767) completed a battery of assessments. The measures included the eating behaviours component of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Assessment, which was reduced to one factor (weight loss preoccupation) and used as the outcome variable. Measures of self-esteem, body-esteem and emotional problems were reduced to a latent (mediator) variable of psychological functioning. Multi-group analysis examined the effects of sex and all models were adjusted for covariates (BMI, pubertal stage, age, parental education and ethnicity).
Results: Bullies, victims and bully-victims were at increased risk of weight loss preoccupation compared to adolescents uninvolved in bullying. The mechanism by which bullying involvement related to increased weight loss preoccupation varied by bullying role: in bullies the effect was direct, in victims the effect was indirect (via reduced psychological functioning) and in bully-victims the effect was both direct and indirect. Sex significantly moderated the relationship in bullies: weight loss preoccupation was only statistically significant in bullies who were boys.
Conclusion: Bullying involvement during adolescence is associated with weight loss preoccupation. Bullies are likely driven by a desire to increase attractiveness and social status; whereas weight loss preoccupation in bullied adolescents may have maladaptive influences on diet and exercise behaviours due to its association with reduced psychological functioning. Future research should consider peer victimisation as a potential modifiable risk factor for reduced psychological functioning and weight loss preoccupation, which if targeted, may help to prevent maladaptive diet and exercise behaviours.
Keywords: Adolescents; Bullying; Psychological functioning; Victimisation; Weight loss preoccupation.