For children, the mental health consequences of being teased about their weight may be more significant than the consequences of simply being overweight – that’s according to a new study from researchers in Germany.

The study surveyed over a thousand children between the ages of 7 and 11 over the course of two years. The children were asked about their weight, their attitudes to their weight, their experiences being teased about their weight, and their overall psychological wellbeing.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they discovered that the weight teasing children were subjected to had real implications for the children’s mental health. In fact, being teased about their weight predicted lower psychological functioning regardless of the children’s actual weight, suggesting that the effects of weight teasing were greater than the effects of actually being overweight.

Whether children had internalized biases about weight also contributed to their mental health. The results were the same for both boys and girls. These findings led the researchers to conclude that “the experience of weight teasing and internalization of weight bias is more important than weight status in explaining psychological functioning among children.”

This study adds evidence to the idea that weight teasing has real implications for children’s wellbeing, but it’s not the first study to look at the relationship between weight teasing and mental health.

For example, research published last year showed that weight teasing can trigger disordered eating, especially in those who have an underlying genetic predisposition to eating disorders. A 2014 study linked weight teasing at the school level to low self-esteem, depression and body fat dissatisfaction.

Moreover, the effects of weight teasing can be lifelong. A 2016 study found that adults who reported having been teased more about their weight in childhood and adolescence were less likely to maintain weight loss. One possible reason the study identified is that in adulthood, these people are more prone to emotional eating.

Ultimately, these findings mean that weight teasing is far from harmless. Rather, parents, educators and psychologists should be aware that weight teasing can have a variety of mental health implications that can be addressed with interventions like therapy.

Image: Flickr/Ken Whytock