Research of Note for June 2004

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Obesity and lack of exercise have joined issues such as bullying and sex as matters of major concern for adolescents. New research can help determine who needs help and what kind of help might work.

Are Overweight Kids Bullies or Victims?

Associations Between Overweight and Obesity With Bullying Behaviors in School-Aged Children
Ian Janssen, Ph.D.; Wendy Craig, Ph.D.; William Boyce, Ph.D.; and William Pickett, Ph.D.
Pediatrics, Vol. 113, May 2004, pages 1187-94.
Available free from Janssen at Department of Community Health, Abramsky Hall, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6, or

Obesity is a health problem for youth, but it can also be a social and emotional problem. This new study shows that overweight and obese kids are more likely to be bullied, and also more likely to bully other kids. But age and sex matter.

The study was based on more than 5,000 Canadian boys and girls between 11 and 16 who participated in a World Health Organization survey and were representative of children that age in Canada. The survey examined all kinds of bullying: physical, verbal and relational (such as excluding friends or spreading lies about them), as well as sexual harassment. Obesity was measured by the Body Mass Index, or BMI.

More kids reported being victims of bullying (12 percent of all kids) than reported being bullies (9 percent). Only 3 percent reported that they were bullies and victims.

The chances of being a victim increased with weight for 11- to 12-year-old boys and for 13- to 16-year-old girls. The heavier boys and girls were more likely to be victims of verbal bullying, such as teasing or being called names. Girls who weighed more were also more likely to be victims of physical bullying, which was not true for boys. The heavier girls and boys were more likely to be victims of relational bullying, such as being excluded from a group of friends. Girls who were overweight or obese were also more likely to be victims of false rumors and lies. Weight was not related to sexual harassment for boys or girls.

Looking at the total sample of girls and boys, girls who weighed more were more likely to be bullies, but that was not true for boys. However, the results were different when specific age groups were evaluated. Among boys and girls, overweight and obese 15- and 16-year-olds were more likely to be bullies than were their slimmer classmates. Overweight and obese boys and girls were more likely to hit, kick, push, tease or call people names. Overweight and obese boys were also more likely to exclude friends or spread false rumors.

The main shortcoming of the study is how bullying was evaluated. First, it was based on what kids said about themselves – that is,about how they are treated and how they treat others. Second, bullying or being bullied had to occur at least twice a month to be counted; being bullied or bullying others once a month did not meet the study’s definition of bullying.

Weight was also self-reported. It is likely that those categorized as overweight or obese truly are, but some kids may have underestimated their weight. The fact that the study was conducted in Canada raises questions about how accurate these findings would be elsewhere, although there is no reason to think they would not be similar in the United States.

It is important for youth workers to know that overweight and obese boys and girls are more likely to perpetrate frequent bullying, as well as to be victims of it. It may be surprising to many that bullying is more prevalent among older teens who are overweight, rather than younger ones, and that relatively few are both victims and perpetrators.

Are Girls Having Sex Too Young?

Adolescent Girls’ Perceptions of the Timing of Their Sexual Initiation: “Too Young” or “Just Right?”
Sian Cotton, Ph.D.; Lisa Mills, Ph.D.; Paul Succop, Ph.D.; and colleagues.
Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 34, No. 5, 2004, pages 453-458.
Available free from Cotton, VA Medical Center, 3200 Vine Street (151), Cincinnati, OH 45220 or

Girls are having sex earlier than adults think they should, but if the sex is consensual, how concerned should adults be? A new study shows that the girls themselves often think their first sexual experience was too early.

The study followed 174 girls, ages 12 to 15, for three years. At the start of the study, 41 percent had had consensual sex, and by the end of the study, that figure had increased to 73 percent. The average age of first consensual intercourse was 14. When asked if their age of sexual initiation was “too young,” “too old” or “just right,” 78 percent said they were too young, while 22 percent said their age was “just right.” None said it was too old.

Which girls were most likely to think the age was just right? They were younger than the other girls, but the age at which they first had sex was older. They were more likely to say they had sex because they were in love and to report that their parents kept track of where they were and who they were with, and their mothers were more educated. Their parents were not more controlling in terms of directly supervising their activities.

Are these girls typical of girls nationwide? They were not representative in terms of race: Eighty percent were African-American and 20 percent were white. The mothers’ average education level was high school graduate, although the range was from sixth grade through graduate school. The girls were recruited from a hospital-based adolescent medical clinic, and 60 percent of the girls recruited refused to participate in the study. Of those who agreed, 85 percent actually came to the first appointment. They were paid $20 for interviews with a female research assistant every six months for three years, and received $30 for the last visit. Girls who reported being sexually experienced received a pelvic exam at each visit to screen for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Although the girls in this study are not representative of girls nationwide, the findings raise important issues for youth workers. It is important to know that even in communities where early sex is not stigmatized and where many girls are having sex at 14, the young girls themselves often realize too late that they were not ready.

Getting Girls to Like Exercise Isn’t Easy

A Controlled Evaluation of a School-based Intervention to Promote Physical Activity Among Sedentary Adolescent Females: Project FAB
Margaret Schneider Jamner, Ph.D.; Donna Spruijt-Metz, Ph.D.; Stan Bassin, Ed.D.; and Dan Cooper, M.D.
Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 34, No. 5, 2004, pages 279-289.
Available free from Jamner at School of Social Ecology, University of California at Irvine, 202 SE I, Irvine, CA 92697.

Can a specially designed physical education class make couch potatoes physically fit? This study says maybe.

Sophomore and junior girls at two public high schools in Orange County, Calif., were encouraged to participate. To take part, the girls had to have fewer than three 20-minute vigorous bouts of exercise per week and fewer than five 30-minute bouts of moderate exercise per week. They had to have relatively low cardiovascular fitness and yet be physically able to exercise without restrictions. Just over half (53 percent) of the participants were white, 29 percent were Hispanic, 8 percent were Asian, and 10 percent were other races. Students volunteered in response to fliers and announcements.

Students in one school enrolled in a special physical education class that met five days a week for 60 minutes (including about 40 minutes of activity time). The activities offered were based on focus groups that asked the girls what they would like to do, and included aerobic dance, basketball, swimming and Tae Bo. One day a week of class time was devoted to a lecture or discussion of the health benefits of physical activity and strategies for becoming physically active.

The class was modeled after the Project GRAD intervention, which was developed for college students, and included efforts to promote confidence in youths’ ability to exercise, social support for both exercise and enjoyment of exercise, and attempts to overcome barriers (such as thinking exercise or sports are boring or embarrassing).

It was a small study, with only 25 girls in a four-month class in one school and 22 girls in the other school serving as a control group. (The latter had expressed interest but were not enrolled in a class.) The girls missed a fair number of classes: On average, they missed eight of the 80 sessions; the range was zero to 23.

The results showed that the girls in the physical education class did better than the control group in several areas. Girls in the physical education group reported increased levels of physical activity in their lifestyles outside of class, while the physical activity habits of the girls in the control group were a bit worse at the end of the four months. Cardiovascular fitness did not improve among the girls in the class overall, but because the fitness of the girls in the control group declined, the class was considered a success.

The authors point out that the results were complicated by the fact that the original “baseline” scores of the girls’ physical activity were based on summer activities, which tend to be more physical than activities that girls engage in during the school year. This is a major flaw in the study design.

The researchers admit that the main benefit found for regular physical education was that the girls did not get worse over the four months. The fitness of the girls in the control group deteriorated at the same time that fitness of the girls in class improved slightly. However, the researchers were discouraged that the girls in physical education did not report feeling better about their exercising or physical activity skills, did not report feeling more positive about exercising, and did not report more social support for exercising among family or friends.

The results were not very encouraging and suggest that getting inactive adolescent girls to embrace physical fitness may take a lot more than a four-month crash course.

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., is president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families. Contact: Information about many Research Watch columns is available at