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Bullying - What is bullying?


  1. What is bullying?
  2. How common is bullying?
  3. Where does bullying occur?
  4. What influences bullying?

What Is Bullying?

Nearly every publication on the topic of bullying presents its own definition of the problem. Separated by primarily semantic differences, the majority of definitions proposed by researchers and practitioners incorporate the following key concepts:

  • Bullying involves intentional, and largely unprovoked, efforts to harm another.
  • Bullying can be physical or verbal, and direct or indirect in nature.
  • Bullying involves repeated negative actions by one or more against another.
  • Bullying involves an imbalance of physical or psychological power.

In her book Childhood Bullying, Teasing, and Violence: What School Personnel, Other Professionals, and Parents Can Do (Second Edition), Dorothea Ross - cofounder of the Society of Pediatric Psychology and research psychologist at Stanford Medical School - reviews many of the different conceptualizations of bullying used by researchers over the years.

Ross then proposes the following definition of bullying, which represents a synthesis of the varied definitions presented in the bullying literature:

Bullying refers to intentional and generally unprovoked attempts by one or more individuals to inflict physical hurt and/or psychological distress on one or more victims. There must be an imbalance of physical or psychological power, with the bully actually being stronger or perceived to be stronger than the victim. The bullying may be direct, with face-to-face physical or verbal confrontations, or indirect, with less visible actions such as spreading rumors or social exclusion. Although a single attack on a victim if severe enough can be accurately described as bullying, the term more often refers to a series of negative actions that occur frequently over time."

In addition to presenting her own definition, Ross also reviews some of the obstacles that impede consensus among researchers on the definition of bullying. Specifically, there are some disagreements about whether bullying must involve repeated attacks and an imbalance of power. Consider the following:

  • Repeated attacks: Many people believe that a behavior that occurs just once or twice, no matter how serious, should not be considered bullying. One persuasive argument for this has to do with the notion that bullying leads to two kinds of distress among victims: the immediate physical or psychological distress that results from the actual bullying incident and the anticipatory fear that often occurs from the spoken or implied threat of future attacks. However, others contend that attacks should not have to occur repeatedly and over time to be classified as bullying. Perhaps the most compelling argument for this perspective comes from children themselves. In an unpublished survey, respondents ranging in age from 5 to 20 years did not think that negative actions had to be repeated to be considered bullying.
  • Imbalance of power: Most people agree that bullying involves an imbalance of physical or psychological power, either real or perceived, between the aggressor and the victim; however, Thompson and Smith (1991) questioned this based on conversations they had with children who labeled as bullying any situation involving unprovoked aggression, even when the odds seemed to be even.

It is interesting to note that these two problems with definition seem to result from differences in the ways that adults and children conceptualize bullying. Researchers and practitioners alike will need to investigate these differences to better understand and more effectively address the problem of bullying in the future.

While the definition of bullying presented above alludes to different types of bullying behaviors, the following is a breakdown of four distinct categories:

Physical Bullying
Includes punching, poking, strangling, hair pulling, beating, biting, and excessive tickling.

Emotional Bullying
Includes rejecting, extorting, defaming, humiliating, blackmailing, manipulating friends, isolating, ostracizing, and peer pressure.

Sexual Bullying
Includes exhibitionism, voyeurism, sexual propositioning, sexual harassment, and abuse involving physical contact and assault.

Verbal Bullying
Includes such acts as hurtful name-calling, teasing, and gossip.

Within each of these categories, specific bullying behaviors can occur at different levels of severity. While all bullying is unacceptable, many of the more serious behaviors are actually illegal. Over the past two decades, severe school bullying has been increasingly acknowledged to fall under the rubric of criminal behavior. In 1987, during a meeting held at Harvard University to discuss the problem of school bullying, an international group of scholars made the following statement:

      "Under the euphemism of 'bullying,' we see a much broader, more serious affair. We see instances of assault and battery, gang activity, threat of bodily harm, weapons possession, extortion, civil rights violations, attempted murder, and murder.

"Everybody knows these are crimes. The fact that they were committed by minors upon minors does not make them less than crimes. The fact that they were committed on school grounds by students does not make them less than crimes."

It is important to understand that bullying exists at multiple levels, and that behaviors at each level of severity must be taken seriously - because any and all bullying is harmful, and because bullies can easily progress from less to more severe bullying. Sidebar: Children with ADHD, ODD, and other behavioral disorders are particularly vulnerable to low self-esteem. They frequently experience school problems, have difficulty making friends, and lag behind their peers in psychosocial development. They are more likely than other children to bully and to be bullied. Parents of children with behavior problems experience highly elevated levels of child-rearing stress, and this may make it more difficult for them to respond to their children in positive, consistent, and supportive ways.Source: Adapted from Exploring the Nature and Prevention of Bullying

Page last modified by Department of Education on January 25, 2010

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 31, 2014

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