Rejection, teasing and victimisation can be extremely distressing for teens and such experiences are expected to cause eating disorders, body and muscle distortion, social anxiety and depression.

These are the issues being investigated by Griffith University researchers, to determine the contexts and sources of teasing that are most toxic for healthy adolescent development.

Funded by a $225,000 Australian Research Council (ARC) grant, the research is extending on a previous study by the Griffith team which found up to 40 per cent of teens to have heightened concerns around appearance anxiety and low appearance esteem.

“It was surprising to see that so many young people, especially girls, have these types of concerns as early as age 9 to 10 years, but we found that a critical predictor of this can be teasing by others,” says Professor Melanie Zimmer-Gembeck from Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland.

“This can even take the form of very subtle teasing such as that arising from classmates, peer groups and parents. Although subtle, we found that it can be quite damaging to some teens’ personal adjustment and in extreme cases, can result in mental health issues such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety.

“Now at this stage of research, we’re looking to extend on the current findings and examine the characteristics of this teasing; is it sexual in nature? Is it about appearance or weight? Does it mainly come from the same sex or the opposite sex? Is it happening mainly in school or out of school, and how much of a part does social media play? Those are the sort of variables we will be closely looking at.”

Longtitudinal study with Gold Coast schools

The longitudinal study will be run over three years taking a cohort of 400 adolescents aged from 15 to 17 across three Gold Coast schools.

“I think that we will probably find that same sex teasing will be more troublesome for adolescent girls, with the reverse being the case amongst boys. With the increasing dominance of social media among this age group, I believe that we will also see increasing issues of teasing with a sexual context to it,” says Professor Zimmer-Gembeck.

“Online teasing will probably be most prevalent, but each form will be important to study regarding body image concerns and their implications for development and the possibility of mental health issues.”

She says that an additional part of the ARC study will focus on what teens can do to help them cope with the challenges of teasing. “We will look at what helps them protect themselves, such as support from parents and friends, as well as the feelings of competence they can cultivate in other areas of their life which can help to boost overall confidence and resilience.”

Professor Zimmer-Gembeck says she is aiming for the research to lead to the development of a school-based program to help teens build social and emotional wellbeing.