Bullying is repeated aggressive behavior intended to intimidate, dominate, humiliate, or abuse others who are perceived as less powerful or unable to defend themselves. Bullying can be direct physical or verbal aggression, indirect aggression such as spreading harmful rumors, or cyberbullying using electronic media. Although bullying most often involves children or teens, it also occurs among adults in the workplace and in domestic situations.
Sara was nervous about starting seventh grade at a new middle school where she knew no one. To her surprise, on the very first day she was befriended by two of the most popular girls. They sat down with her at lunch, walked her home from school, and invited her to a party. For those first few weeks, Sara was very happy. Then suddenly everything changed. One of her new “friends” stuck out a foot and tripped Sara in the lunch-room, causing her to drop her tray. Sitting at a nearby table, the two girls pointed at Sara and giggled. They started calling Sara names and encouraged other kids to make fun of her. One day Sara came home from school and switched on Facebook. One of the girls had posted a picture of Sara with the caption “Take a look at fatty!”
Sara's mother knew something was wrong. Sara was complaining of stomachaches and refusing to go to school. Her grades dropped. She would not finish her dinner. When Sara's mother heard her crying in her room, she went in and asked what was wrong, but Sara would not answer. Finally, Sara's mother called her homeroom teacher, who referred Sara to the school counselor. After several sessions with the counselor, Sara's story began to emerge. The counselor realized that the school had a bullying problem—one that went beyond Sara and the girls who were tormenting her. In addition to meeting with the girls who were bullying Sara, the counselor organized anti-bullying sessions with groups of seventh graders. There they discussed what constituted bullying, why kids did it, and the harm that it inflicted. Over time, the bullying subsided, the social atmosphere in the school improved, and Sara made new friends.
To be considered bullying, a behavior must be aggressive, involve an imbalance of power, and occur more than once or have the potential to be repeated. Power imbalances can include factors such as physical strength, popularity, or access to embarrassing or damaging information. Power imbalances between individuals can change with the situation and over time, and the same individuals can be bullies in some situations and victims in others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bullying as a form of youth violence that includes “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” However, other definitions of bullying include sibling bullying and bullying by romantic partners.
Bullying is frequently dismissed as a normal part of growing up or even as necessary for learning to stand up for oneself. However, bullying can cause serious—and potentially long-lasting—physical, psychological, emotional, social, and academic harm to both the victim and the perpetrator.
There are three main types of bullying: verbal, social, and physical. Examples of verbal (including written) bullying include:
Social or relational bullying is an attempt to damage someone's reputation or relationships and includes:
Physical bullying includes:
Factors that increase a child's likelihood of being bullied include:
Two types of children have been identified as more likely to bully: children with many friends and social power, who like to dominate or be in charge, and who are overly concerned with popularity; children who are socially isolated, depressed, or anxious, with low self-esteem, less engaged in school, easily pressured by peers, and/or lacking empathy * . Factors that increase the likelihood that a child will engage in bullying include:
Children with disabilities or special needs are two to three times more likely to be bullied. Almost half of all children with autism * have been bullied. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) * youth also can be at increased risk for bullying.
Bullying can be contagious in that victims of bullying are more likely to start bullying others. The friends of children who bully also are more likely to start bullying.
Warning signs that a child or teen may be bullying others can include:
Studies indicate that adults are notified of only about 40 percent of bullying incidents. Reasons for not telling an adult include:
When an adult witnesses apparent bullying or is approached by a young person who claims to have been bullied, the proper response is to:
It is necessary to determine whether bullying has occurred. Definitions of bullying, school policy, and any applicable state laws should be consulted. Factors to be considered include:
The goals are to stop the bullying, help children cope with bullying, and lessen its impact. Responding quickly and consistently to bullying makes it clear that the behavior is unacceptable. Research has shown that quick and consistent responses can, over time, stop the behavior. All of the children involved in a bullying incident, including bystanders, must be supported. Bullied children should be assured that it is right to come forward, that they are not alone because many people are sometimes bullied, that the bullying is not their fault and it was the bully who behaved badly, and that together they will work out what to do.
Children can be taught to deal with bullying without fighting or bullying back. They should be asked what will make them feel safe without making major changes in their routines. Role-playing to prepare for bullying situations can be especially useful. Strategies include:
To help restore self-confidence, children who have been bullied should be encouraged to spend time with friends and participate in sports or other activities that build friendships and strengths. Children should be encouraged to intervene when they witness bullying and to defend other children who are bullied.
Bullying that is not confronted immediately can lead to escalating aggression that can harm peers, families, schools, and communities. Children and teens who are bullied:
Young people who bully others are also at increased risk for academic problems, substance abuse, and violence later in adolescence and adulthood. They are more likely to fight, commit vandalism, drop out of school, and engage in early sexual activity. As adults, they are more likely to have traffic citations and criminal convictions and abuse romantic partners, spouses, and children. The most serious mental health and behavioral consequences are seen in young people who both bully others and are bullied themselves (“bully-victims”).
Bullying usually occurs in the presence of other children, and children who witness bullying are affected as well. They are more likely to have mental health problems, including anxiety or depression; to have increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs; and to miss school.
The effects of bullying can sometimes last a lifetime. A 2013 study found that childhood bullying can lead to a variety of problems in adulthood, including illness and employment and relationship difficulties. A 2015 study found that Americans who were bullied as children had almost four times the risk of mental health problems as adults compared to children who were maltreated by adults. A 2016 study linked cyberbullying and violence to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) * in teens. Lasting damage also has been reported among LGBT teens who were bullied or harassed.
Bullying is preventable, but children need to understand what it is and how to prevent it. Bullying should be discussed before it occurs, so that children are prepared, can practice their responses, and react appropriately. Asking children about their lives at school, other kids in their classes, and whether anyone is being picked on or bullied encourages communication. Children should know that being bullied is not their fault and that they should not be afraid to ask an adult for help. They should be encouraged to report bullying, stand up to kids who bully, and have strategies for staying safe. Encouraging friendships helps prevent bullying, since loners are more likely to bullied. Promoting activities such as sports, music groups, and clubs can help develop children's social skills and make it less likely that they will be bullied. School officials should be alerted to bullying problems, and parents and schools should work together on solutions.
Many schools have implemented bullying-prevention programs, but as of 2016, the effectiveness of most of these programs had not been evaluated. A 2013 study reported that students at schools with anti-bullying initiatives were more likely to be bullied than those at schools without such programs. It was unclear whether the programs were simply ineffective or were actually teaching some students how to hide bullying behaviors. Anti-bullying measures that appear to be effective include:
See also Conduct Disorder
Bazelon, Emily. Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House, 2013.
Whitson, Signe. 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. New York: Norton, 2014.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Understanding Bullying Fact Sheet.” http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying_factsheet.pdf (accessed March 25, 2016).
stopbullying.gov . “Bullying Definition.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/index.html (accessed March 25, 2016).
American Academy of Pediatrics. 141 NW Point Blvd., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098. Telephone: 847-434-4000. Toll-free: 800-4339016. Fax: 847-434-8000. Website: https://www.aap.org (accessed March 25, 2016).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA 30329-4027. Toll-free: 800-232-4636 (800-CDC-INFO). Website: http://www.cdc.gov (accessed March 25, 2016).
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. NICHD Information Resource Center, PO Box 3006, Rockville, MD 20847. Toll-free: 800-370-2943. Fax: 866-760-5947. Website: https://www.nichd.nih.gov (accessed April 1, 2016).
* empathy (EM-pah-thee) is the ability to identify with the emotions and feelings of others.
* autism (AW-tih-zum) is a developmental disorder in which a person has difficulty interacting and communicating with others and usually has severely limited interest in social activities.
* lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) are women who are sexually attracted to other women, men who are attracted to other men, people who are attracted to both the same and opposite sexes, and people who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth or with strictly male-female gender assignments.
* homophobia is prejudice against or dislike of homosexuals.
* post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological response to a highly stressful event, typically characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the traumatic experience.