In 2019, 22% of teenage students reported being bullied.¹ Those who’ve experienced bullying know the intense impact it has on their lives — victims of bullying are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, poor adjustment, and an increased risk of substance abuse and academic problems.² Whether the bullying happens directly, indirectly, or online, there are serious and long-lasting consequences to its social isolation and harassment.
Here, we provide facts and resources so you can identify what bullying is, where it happens, and what power you have to prevent it.
At its simplest, bullying is aggressive behavior from one person (or a group of people) in a position of power toward someone in a perceived “lesser” position. It’s meant to degrade, insult, humiliate, or embarrass the target and is almost always an ongoing pattern of behavior. Bullying can include (but isn’t limited to)³:
The most common methods of bullying include rumors (13%), taunting or name-calling (13%), minor physical violence (such as being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on) (5%), and exclusion (5%).⁴
Bullying has a significant overlap with the concepts of discrimination and harassment, but not every example fits these descriptions. Harassment and discrimination occur when someone is the target of poor treatment, specifically because of their personal attributes (such as a disabled person being the target of frequent taunts about what they can and can’t do because of their disability).
In this guide, we’ll discuss bullying primarily among children, but keep in mind that bullying is something that happens to adults, too.
Since bullying displays power dynamics that cause harm, it makes sense that people in lower social strata are the most vulnerable. Some comparisons between student demographics illuminate who’s more likely to be affected by bullying.¹ With the following statistics, keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to obtain exact numbers due to many people downplaying or lying about being bullied due to shame.
Students who don’t fit in with a school’s social hierarchy are the most likely to be bullied. Depending on the school, this can include LGBT+ (or those perceived as LGBT+), non-white, and disabled students. 40% of students who are LGBT+ report being bullied.⁵ Students from low-income backgrounds may also be prime targets for bullying. A student doesn’t have to be disadvantaged to be bullied. However, there is no real way to tell when a student will or won’t be bullied other than that other students believe they “stand out.”
We don’t know exactly what leads a person to become a bully. Researchers consider many theoretical frameworks, including family systems, peer socialization, and developmental psychopathology.⁶ Other factors that are generally common in bullies include:
Of course, you should take this information with a grain of salt. Just because a student doesn’t display some or all of these traits doesn’t mean they’re not a bully, and a student displaying these traits isn’t automatically going to start acting cruelly toward others.
While we don’t know all of the reasons why someone might bully, contemporary research has identified two personality types that are more likely to predict bullying behavior.
Archetypically, people in positions of social power are more likely to be bullies. These are people with strong social networks: think of the jock with the football team on his side. The difference between a bully and a non-bully popular student is that a bully is likely overly concerned with their social status and has dominating tendencies. This means they will do anything, including being destructive⁷ and acting against their moral code⁸, to uphold their social standing.
On the other hand, socially isolated people are equally likely to become bullies. Bullying behavior in this scenario is often an attempt to hoist the bully into a higher position of social power by belittling others.⁹ Sometimes, they have been bullied themselves, either by other children or within their own families.¹⁰ Whether they’ve been socially ostracized and isolated from natural social stratification or bullying, they are often:
According to a 2019 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics, the most common places for a student to be bullied are⁴:
Below, you’ll find more detail about these places, as well as bullying at home.
School is the most common place for a child or teenager to be bullied. More than two in five students report being bullied on school grounds (in hallways, stairwells, or classrooms). About one in four students report being bullied in large congregate settings like the cafeteria or the playground. Transitional areas, where students aren’t watched closely, are the most common for physical or active social bullying behavior. In contrast, things like purposefully leaving a student out occur more often in a classroom setting.
The classroom is one of the more painful and adversarial places for students to be bullied. Students who are bullied in classrooms report feeling the most unsafe.¹¹ The teacher’s relationship with a student has a significant impact across the board: students who feel rejected by their teachers are more likely to engage in bullying behavior¹², and students with close relationships with their teachers feel most compelled to defend a peer who’s being bullied.¹³ When a teacher intervenes, students report that bullying stops or is reduced two-thirds of the time.¹⁴ The way a teacher engages with their students and cultivates a positive relationship with them has a long-lasting impact on their mental well-being.
Outside the classroom, hallways and stairwells are popular places to see bullying. These spaces give students relatively large amounts of autonomy for a few minutes without much supervision. Some studies have even used GIS (Geographic Information System, a type of mapping often used in ecological studies) to map where bullying occurs most often in schools, with hallways and stairwells overwhelmingly represented.¹⁵
While some schools have tried to counter this by hiring school resource officers (SROs) or security guards, they have little effect on bullying.¹⁶ Since teachers with good student relationships can be one of the most effective resources to combat bullying – and SROs aren’t – having a non-punitive or discipline-only relationship with students may hinder attempts to stop bullying.
Online bullying, also known as cyberbullying, is bullying that occurs through digital devices or the Internet instead of face-to-face. It can happen over texting, email, apps, social media, online forums, video games, or anywhere on the Internet where users interact with one another. This type of bullying involves sharing, sending, or posting mean, incorrect, negative, or otherwise harmful content about another person.⁴³ One form of this is known as doxxing (also spelled “doxing”), and it involves finding or sharing someone’s private or personal information without their knowledge or permission.⁴⁴
Cyberbullying was the subject of many nail-biting advertising campaigns and fueled concerned parents’ worries when the Internet became more available for everyone to use. However, studies have shown that cyberbullying isn’t as widespread as predicted.
Even though most social media platforms and online gaming communities require users to be at least 13 years old, it’s unfortunately very easy for kids to lie about their age online. The highest percent of offenders (6.2%) were 13 years old, with children ages 14 (4.0%) and 17 (3.7%) comprising the lowest percentages. Cyberbullying victimization peaks around ages 14-15 (at 27.2% and 27.7%, respectively) before dropping off dramatically. Only 16.2% of 17-year-olds reported being cyberbullied.¹⁷
Across the Internet, anywhere from 20% to 40% of all users report having been cyberbullied at one point. However, 71% of male students and 74% of female students report being bullied at least once in their lives.¹⁸ 90% of people experiencing cyberbullying are also being bullied face-to-face.¹⁹ Considering that the Internet has been a central facet of teens’ lives since the early 2000s, it’s likely that cyberbullying isn’t a distinct type of bullying but rather a different location that bullies inhabit.
Anonymity online can spur increased rates of cyberbullying. The more anonymity a potential bully feels, the more likely they will cyberbully others.²⁰ While complete anonymity isn’t the only factor at play — being untraceable won’t necessarily turn a gentle, mature teenager into a raging bully — it can influence how everyone uses these platforms. Plus, degrees of separation from bullying online lessen the chance that a person will intervene; re-shared posts that feature bullying are more susceptible to the bystander effect than original content.²¹
For all its problems, social media can also be a place of healing for those who’ve been bullied. A July 2021 study showed that tweets about bullying mostly involved victims sharing their experiences and coming together to find “cathartic discussion and support” rather than a continuation of bullying behavior.²² Of course, bullies won’t post about how they’re bullying other people. But having an open community space to build social support can only help victims.
Emotionally abusive or consistently angry, hostile parents can be bullies. Experiencing this behavior can show a child that this conduct is acceptable and may make them more likely to have emotional, developmental, or behavioral problems or be bullies themselves.⁴⁵
Siblings can bully one another with the same ferocity as unrelated peers. Up to 40% of students experience sibling bullying, a repeated and harmful form of intrafamilial aggression.²³ Children learn to solve conflicts by getting into them in safe environments, but sibling bullying is different from the typical squabbling and strife of two children raised together.
Sibling bullying often comes from a power dynamic difference (the older sibling bullies a younger one) or parental favoritism (the favorite child leverages that power over an unfavored child). Children whose siblings had physically bullied them before age nine experienced the most distress in a 2013 study, with all other kinds of aggression uniquely predicting worse mental health outcomes.²⁴ It’s an understudied phenomenon, but it plays as much of a negative role in children’s lives as peer bullying.
Bullying causes massive disruptions to a person’s physical and mental health. There is a cascade of potential complications when it happens to a student.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you aren’t alone. Reach out to a crisis line (text HOME to 741741 or call 1-800-273-8255), a friend, or your nearest emergency department.
Bullying victims have a significantly higher risk of depression compared to their non-bullied peers. Those who are cyberbullied are even more likely to be depressed than those bullied in person.²⁵ This risk of depression stays high across the lifespan, with adults bullied between ages 15 and 18 having the highest likelihood of depression by the time they turn 28.²⁶
Bullying increases the risk of developing an anxiety disorder two to three times, even when the victim is already predisposed to having one.²⁷ Like with depression, these students are much more likely to have multiple mental health diagnoses when they’re adults.
Suicidal thoughts and ideation are considerably higher in bullying victims than in students who have no experience with bullying. This is an extreme but not uncommon reaction to bullying (to the point that there have been Disney Channel movies made to help prevent this situation). In fact, the more bullying affects a student’s life, the more likely they are to experience suicidal ideation or attempt suicide.²⁸ Depression also plays a role in suicidal thoughts, particularly in female students, who are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts from in-person and cyberbullying if they’re also depressed.²⁹
Students who have been bullied are at a higher risk of substance abuse. This is separate from their risk of depression, so even those who aren’t depressed may still self-medicate with alcohol and other intoxicants.³⁰
If a student is bullied at school, it makes sense that they disengage from learning. After all, how can you focus in a place where people beat you up or spread nasty rumors? Bully victims often have high levels of fear in classroom settings, which leads to disengagement from the material they’re taught. They are less likely to succeed in school, having lower test scores and grades than peers who aren’t bullied.³¹ 70% of students agree that being cyberbullied negatively affects their performance in school.³² And those who perform poorly in school due to bullying often have a more challenging time adapting to adult roles, such as forming lasting relationships and becoming economically independent.³³
Students don’t become bullies for no reason. Youth who bully others often struggle to find effective coping mechanisms for bad feelings and instead take those feelings out on others. Externalizing coping mechanisms might also look like substance abuse, which bullies are significantly more likely to develop in adulthood than their peers who aren’t involved in bullying.³⁴ Boys who bully others are more likely to get involved in non-alcohol substance abuse, including nicotine, marijuana, and “harder” drugs.³⁵
Bully-victims are bullied and bully others; they are impacted most heavily by bullying in their lives. Bullying victims who experience higher levels of hostility are more likely to become bully-victims.³⁶ Sometimes, the bullying and victimization coincide; other times, they are bullied early in life and become a bully later. It isn’t a particularly common outcome, but either way, bully-victims experience the most serious consequences and have the greatest risk of mental health and behavioral problems. They experience the psychosocial impacts of bullying victims at higher rates and with more extreme outcomes.
All 50 states have passed anti-bullying laws. There isn’t any federal legislation about anti-bullying, but there has historically been federal guidance suggesting that states adopt such laws.³⁷ If bullying overlaps with discrimination or harassment (such as if a student is bullied because of their race or gender), they have recourse through federal laws.
These state laws provide the most direct action that protects students. These laws cover:
The chart below sketches out each state’s current bullying laws. The scope and depth of the state’s laws vary, so check your state’s specifics.
|Criminal sanctions?||School sanctions?||School policies?||Off-campus?|
Much like there isn’t one kind of person that will always become a bully, there isn’t one best strategy to prevent bullying worldwide (or even in your neighborhood). Some tasks, tricks, and tools help more than others.
Evidence-based bullying prevention programs are some of the most effective. They arm teachers with specific skills for intervention and provide students with both learning opportunities and clear, simple definitions and rules around bullying. Many of these programs are aimed at elementary school students, which gives them an anti-bullying framework before the highest rates of bullying occur in middle school.
Three evidence-based programs are notable for their scientific and practical acclaim:
Steps to Respect is designed for grades 3-6 by the Committee for Children. This program shows a demonstrable decrease in bullying cases when properly used. The organization has also created Second Step and the Bullying Prevention Unit, further evidence-based bullying prevention programs designed for elementary school students.
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program was developed by (and named after) Dr. Dan Olweus, one of the top experts on bullying worldwide who literally wrote some of the contemporary definitions of bullying. This program can be used with students of any age. Long-term studies of over 30,000 students have shown that it significantly and consistently decreases the rate of every kind of bullying.
While KiVa is more common in Europe (having been developed at the University of Turku, Finland), its three-pronged prevention, intervention, and monitoring tools have shown great effectiveness. One study found it cut the rate of bullying up to 92%, improved students’ feelings about their peers, and improved the long-term outcomes of victims’ mental health.
A few studies break down how effectively school bullying prevention programs work. The most recent ones have noted that anti-bullying programs reduced bullying actions by 20% and victimization by about 15%.³⁸ However, they don’t know exactly how or why these programs work. Earlier studies by the Congressional Research Service suggest that anti-bullying programs can dampen up to 25% of bullying in schools. Using more specific and research-backed programs may help to improve the overall quality of anti-bullying education and decrease the rate of bullying in schools.
Bullying prevention programs work best when you get ahead of bullying; applying a prevention program to students who are already bullying others doesn’t discourage them as much as it does when you set rules and expectations beforehand. Since most bullying starts in late elementary or middle school, beginning anti-bullying education early in elementary school is often the best option.³⁹
Parental engagement and academic discipline discourage bullies more than they help victims.⁴⁰ Administering consequences or using strategies like peer mediation (asking kids to “work it out”) have actually been shown to increase bullying.⁴⁶
The most important thing you can do to support bullying victims is to provide a safe space for them to talk. Knowing that they have social support — whether from a peer, teacher, or parent — can help make all the difference in a victim’s day. Encouraging a positive school climate can also help protect students from bullying behaviors.⁴¹
85% of bullying events have bystanders. When bystanders try to stand up for the victim, the victim reports feeling better about the incident, yet bystanders only intervene 10% of the time.⁴² Encouraging bystander intervention can help snuff out the social isolation that drives bullying.
Some other practices and techniques that help include:
There are dozens of organizations in the United States that work to educate people about bullying and prevent it from happening. We’ve cataloged many of them here so that you can find the right fit for your experiences.
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