Weight Bias May Show Up in School Kids As Young As 9

An image of an overweight family, shown in silhouette.
(Image credit: Prazis Images/Shutterstock)

School-age kids may be biased against their peers who are overweight or obese and not even know it, a new study finds.

To measure levels of bias in schoolchildren, researchers showed them a series of photos of children who were slim and children who were overweight. They found that the kids showed more bias toward the overweight kids than the slimmer ones, according to the study.

It's unclear exactly where this type of bias stems from, but previous research on racial bias has suggested that unconscious biases are not innate, said study co-author Dr. Eliana Perrin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In other words, these biases must be learned.

Kids "are probably learning those [weight] biases from the media, from their parents, from their peers pretty early on," Perrin told Live Science. [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]

More than 100 kids, ages 9 to 11, were included in the study, which was published today (June 23) in the journal Pediatrics. Each child in the study was shown nine pairs of images, but each of the paired photos was shown to them one at a time. The pairs were all children of the same age, race and gender, but one photo was of a slim child and the other photo was of an overweight child.

After the kids looked at each individual image in the nine photo pairs, the researchers showed them images of meaningless patterns called fractals, and asked them to focus on these images. Previous research has found that showing people photos of individuals followed by images of fractals is a valid method of measuring implicit biases, according to the study.

The children were then asked to rate each of the fractal images as "good" or "bad." They found that the kids rated 64 percent of the fractals that that they saw after photos of slim children as "good," compared with 59 percent of fractals they saw after looking at photos of overweight children. In other words, the kids were about 5 percent more biased against the overweight children in the photos than the slim children, the researchers said.

"We were certainly surprised that the degree of weight bias was this large," Perrin said.

More research is needed into the causes of weight bias in children, she added.

It's also important to study how this type of bias may affect kids' behaviors toward their peers, according to the study.

Previous research, for example, has shown that children who are overweight or obese are often stigmatized due to their weight, and because of this stigma they may experience emotional and behavioral issues, the researchers said.

But there are certain strategies that parents can use to help combat weight biases in their children, Perrin said. [10 Ways to Promote Kids’ Healthy Eating Habits]

Parents can, for example, "encourage children to actively think about and combat the weight stigma" despite any biases the children may have, she said. They can also encourage their children "to avoid acting on those biases," she said.

In addition, parents can teach children to recognize and guard themselves against messages in the media that stigmatize individuals with overweight or obesity, Perrin said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer