Bullying is a global problem that is not confined to schools. It is something that people of all ages, with all backgrounds, and in any social, educational or workplace environment may witness, be subjected to, or participate in, at any time in life.
What is bullying?
The national definition of bullying for Australian schools was developed by the Safe and Supportive School Communities Working Group. This national group includes all state, territory and federal education departments, as well as national Catholic and independent schooling representatives. The definition of bullying has been developed as part of the National Safe Schools Framework and can be found on the Australian Government's Student Wellbeing Hub.
Bullying is an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power over one or more persons. Bullying can happen in person or online, and it can be obvious (overt) or hidden (covert).
Bullying of any form or for any reason can have long-term effects on those involved, including bystanders.
Single incidents and conflict or fights between equals, whether in person or online, are not defined as bullying.
What is NOT bullying?
Behaviours that do not constitute bullying include:
mutual arguments and disagreements (where there is no power imbalance)
not liking someone or a single act of social rejection
one-off acts of meanness or spite
isolated incidents of aggression, intimidation or violence.
However, these conflicts still need to be addressed and resolved.
Types of bullying.
There are three types of bullying behaviour:
Verbal bullying which includes name calling or insulting someone about physical characteristics such as their weight or height, or other attributes including race, sexuality, culture, or religion
Physical bullying which includes hitting or otherwise hurting someone, shoving or intimidating another person, or damaging or stealing their belongings
Social bullying which includes consistently excluding another person or sharing information or images that will have a harmful effect on the other person.
If any of these behaviours occur only once, or are part of a conflict between equals (no matter how inappropriate) they are not bullying. The behaviours alone don't define bullying.
Verbal, physical and social bullying can occur in person or online, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly.
Setting – in person and online
Bullying can happen in person or online settings. Online bullying is sometimes called cyberbullying.
Verbal, physical and social bullying can happen in person.
Verbal and social bullying can happen online, as can threats of physical bullying.
Specific features of online settings create additional concern for students, parents and carers, and teachers. For example, bullying someone online can potentially have an enormous audience. Research shows that children who are bullied online are often also bullied in person. This means that effectively dealing with online bullying means looking at other situations as well.
Means – direct and indirect
Bullying can be by direct or indirect means.
Direct bullying occurs between the people involved, whereas indirect actions involve others, for example passing on insults or spreading rumours.
Indirect bullying mostly inflicts harm by damaging another's social reputation, peer relationships and self-esteem.
Visibility – overt and covert
Bullying can be easy to see, called overt, or hidden from those not directly involved, called covert.
Overt bullying involves physical actions such as punching or kicking or observable verbal actions such as name-calling and insulting. Overt, direct, physical bullying is a common depiction of bullying. (This is sometimes called 'traditional bullying'). But overt physical bullying may not be the most common type of bullying.
Covert bullying can be almost impossible for people outside the interpersonal interaction to identify. Covert bullying can include repeatedly using hand gestures and weird or threatening looks, whispering, excluding or turning your back on a person, restricting where a person can sit and who they can talk with.
Covert social or verbal bullying can be subtle and even sometimes denied by a person who claims they were joking or 'just having fun'.
Some bullying is both covert and indirect, such as subtle social bullying, usually intentionally hidden, and very hard for others to see. This type of bullying is often unacknowledged at school, and can include spreading rumours, threatening, blackmailing, stealing friends, breaking secrets, gossiping and criticising clothes and personalities. Indirect covert bullying mostly inflicts harm by damaging another's social reputation, peer relationships and self-esteem, that is, through psychological harm rather than physical harm.
Harm – physical and psychological
Bullying has the potential to cause harm (although not all unwanted actions necessarily cause harm). The physical harm caused by some types of bullying is well recognised.
More recently, research has confirmed that short and long term psychological harm can result from bullying. This includes the harm to a person's social standing or reducing a person's willingness to socialise through bullying (particularly covert social bullying).
In fact, just the fear of bullying happening can create distress and harm. The ongoing nature of bullying can lead to the person being bullied feeling powerless and unable to stop it from happening.
The effects of bullying, particularly on the mental health and wellbeing of those involved, including bystanders, can continue even after the situation is resolved.
Roles in bullying
The roles within bullying are:
as the person being bullied
as the person bullying someone else
as a person who witnesses bullying happening or knows about someone being bullied.
A student who is bullied in one context may do the bullying in another, and a student who sees bullying in one context may be bullied in another, as individual students may take on different roles in bullying on different days, in different circumstances or with different peers.
Bullying is not a harmless part of growing up.
The most obvious and immediate effect is reducing students' participation, learning and enjoyment of school. Other impacts include physical health complaints and fatigue, mental health impacts such as depression and anxiety, and social implications including self-doubt and reluctance to participate in group activities.
Many students who are bullied online are also bullied in person. Just as bullying in person can cause harm, being bullied online can lead to social, psychological and educational issues.
Some research into the impacts later in life has suggested that online bullying leads to more significant negative impacts, but research asking students directly what they think at the time found the majority considered bullying in person to be more harmful. The most significant negative impacts have been reported in students who have been subject to direct and relational forms of bullying.
Bullying can create high levels of social anxiety and a sense of loss of dignity and 'agency'. Agency is the sense of control a person has over what happens to them and their life, and their ability to make choices. Feeling powerless and unable to stop the bullying can lead to lasting harm.
Feelings of anxiety, fear and distress about being excluded and being treated with contempt can continue away from the school setting for students who experience bullying in person or online.
The impact for students who bully others depends on whether the bullying is short-term or persists over years. Some students engage in bullying for a short time only and then stop either because they realise it is inappropriate or the school supports them to learn more appropriate behaviour. A small group of students continue to bully others over many years. Students who persistently bully others have been found to have later issues in mental health and educational outcomes, as well as showing criminal and anti-social behaviour.
These outcomes do not necessarily mean their bullying behaviour results in the later outcomes and the criminal behaviour. It is possible something else in the child's attributes, environment or experience contributes to both. However, these later outcomes suggest that persistent bullying is an important warning sign of ongoing problems. Schools and parents/carers need to support those who bully others to learn more appropriate ways to get on with others and deal with conflict and social challenges.
Being a bystander
Students who see bullying happening can also experience negative impacts. Many students who are bystanders to bullying feel distress and anxiety about seeing something they consider to be wrong.
Students can also feel distress about not knowing what to do. Students may be concerned about their own safety or potential loss of social status. They may be afraid of being bullied themselves if they say something. Students who see bullying happening to others may also doubt whether they are generally safe at school. Research shows that frequent bullying and reports by students of feeling unsafe at school are closely linked.
Feeling unsafe can have a negative impact on learning and participating for all students.
Some researchers suggest that bystanders are key to stopping bullying, but these students are also part of the peer group and there may well be issues for them if they speak up. Students weigh up a number of factors to decide if they should intervene, including their relationship with those involved, the apparent seriousness and impact, whether they think someone else should intervene, and their opinion of the person being bullied.
The information provided here has come from the "Bullying, No Way!" website. For more information on bullying, please head to their website, which can be found here.
St Patrick's have also run a number of forums on bullying and cyber safety and they can be found here: