BMI Screenings in Schools Lead to No Rise in Taunts for Kids

By Kevin Rowe

LITTLE ROCK – Student teasing about weight has not increased since Arkansas law began requiring body mass index (BMI) screenings and other changes in schools to address the state’s childhood obesity epidemic, according to new research published today.


The study, published in the October issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, counters many fears that a mandate to assess students’ risk for weight-related health conditions would lead to more children being the target of jokes about body fat. A copy of the full report is available upon request.


Act 1220, passed in 2003, requires Arkansas public schools to collect BMI data from students, send confidential BMI reports to parents and change vending and physical activity policies to make schools healthier for students and staff. Critics of the law predicted the BMI screening would lead to an upswing in teasing and bullying.


“When all of the measures required by Act 1220 are taking place in schools, we found no downside to student BMI assessments,” said Delia Smith West, a researcher and psychologist at the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). “And if the assessments and the law’s other provisions motivate kids to eat healthier foods and get more exercise or encourage parents to make changes at home, there is the upside of a major public health benefit.”


For the past three years, the percentage of Arkansas students classified as overweight or at risk for overweight has remained stable. This is a major achievement given that the state’s obesity rates exceed the national average and had been increasing steadily for decades. Today, an estimated 38 percent of Arkansas kids are overweight or at risk of being overweight, compared with nearly 33 percent of children and adolescents nationally.


“BMI data not only help us track our state’s efforts to prevent childhood obesity, but the individual reports that are sent out provide valuable information for families who may be struggling with obesity-related health problems,” said lead author Rebecca Krukowski, who is also a UAMS psychologist. “The confidential BMI report parents receive may be the tipping point that leads to healthier habits for the entire family.”


Since the passage of Act 1220, some parents and school officials had voiced concern that BMI tests would focus negative attention on children’s weight. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a UAMS research team designed a study to determine if students’ experiences had borne out that concern. The team conducted telephone surveys of 6,417 parents and 1,042 students ages 14 and older who attend public schools in Arkansas. Their surveys were done before BMI testing began and then one and two years after the law was implemented.


The researchers asked parents: “Do others tease, joke or make fun of your child because of his or her weight?” The teen-aged students were asked if they had been the target of such teasing. The UAMS team analyzed the information and adjusted it to account for factors like gender that might confound the results. They found no change in the rates of weight-based teasing.


Although teasing in Arkansas public schools did not increase after the changes mandated by Act 1220, teasing continues to be a serious issue for children and teens. And this study adds to evidence suggesting that youth are targeted and bullied because of their weight. The findings show:


  • Obese adolescents were almost nine times more likely to be teased than their normal-weight peers.
  • Obese children (younger than 14) were four times more likely to be teased about their weight than their normal-weight peers.
  • Girls were more at risk than boys: One out of nearly seven girls reported being teased about weight.
  • Boys typically do not get teased when they put on extra pounds: Only obese boys were more likely to be teased because of weight.

“Overweight and obese kids are particularly vulnerable to teasing,” West said. “Even good-natured teasing can be damaging to a child’s psychological health, especially for kids who are struggling with a weight problem. Kids who are teased a lot are at risk of depression, suicide and unhealthy dieting habits like fasting.” According to West, school-based programs can help reduce the frequency of teasing on the playground and in the classroom.


UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a medical center, six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has 2,652 students and 733 medical residents. Its centers of excellence include the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. It is one of the state’s largest public employers with about 10,000 employees, including nearly 1,150 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS’ Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. UAMS and its affiliates have an economic impact in Arkansas of $5 billion a year. Visit