Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.

In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Bullying includes actions, such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Bullying is not peer conflict, dating violence, hazing, gang violence, harassment (legal definition), or stalking. While these issues may also be problematic, they do not meet the criteria for bullying behavior.

Types of Bullying

There are several types of bullying, and it is not unusual for a bully to utilize more than one type. Verbal bullying is saying, or writing mean things and may include behaviors like teasing or name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, and threatening to cause harm. Social bullying is sometimes referred to as relational bullying. It involves behaviors such as hurting someone’s reputation or relationships by purposely excluding them or getting others to exclude them, spreading rumors about someone, or embarrassing someone in public. Physical bullying is hurting a person’s body or possessions by hitting, kicking, or pinching, spitting, tripping or pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things, or making mean or rude hand gestures.

The Roles in Bullying

There are many roles that individuals may take in bullying situations. Kids can bully others, they can be bullied, or they may witness bullying. Some may play more than one role, sometimes being both bullied and the bully. It is important to understand the multiple roles involved in these situations in order to prevent and respond to bullying effectively.

Importance of Not Labeling Kids

When referring to a bullying situation, it is easy to call the kids who bully others “bullies” and those who are targeted “victims,” but this may have unintended consequences. When children are labeled as “bullies” or “victims,” it may send the message that the individual’s behavior cannot change. It also fails to recognize the multiple roles one might play in different bullying situations. Labeling also disregards other factors contributing to the behavior such as peer influence or school climate.

Instead of labeling the teens involved, focus on the behavior. For instance, instead of calling someone a “bully,” refer to them as “the person who bullied.” Instead of calling a person a “victim,” refer to them as “the person who was bullied.”

The Role of Bully

The roles individuals play in bullying are not limited to those who bully others and those who are bullied. Some researchers talk about the “circle of bullying” to define both those directly involved in bullying and those who actively or passively assist the behavior or defend against it. Direct roles include:

  • Those who Bully: These teens engage in bullying behavior towards their peers. There are many risk factors that may contribute to their involvement in the behavior. Often, these kids require support to change their behavior and address any other challenges that may be influencing their behavior.
  • Those who are Bullied: These teens are the targets of bullying behavior. Some factors put them at more risk of being bullied, but not all kids with these characteristics will be bullied. Sometimes, these individuals may need help learning how to respond to bullying.

Witnesses to Bullying

Even if a person is not directly involved in bullying, they may be contributing to the behavior. Witnessing the behavior may also affect the situation, so they need to learn what they should do when they see bullying happen. Roles kids play when they witness bullying include:

  • Those who Assist: These individuals may not start the bullying or lead in the bullying behavior, but serve as an “assistant” to those who are bullying. These kids may encourage bullying behavior and occasionally join in.
  • Those who Reinforce: These kids are not directly involved in the bullying behavior, but they give the bullying an audience. They will often laugh or provide support for those who are engaging in bullying. This may encourage the bullying to continue.
  • Outsiders: These individuals remain separate from the bullying situation. They neither reinforce the bullying behavior nor defend the person being bullied. Some may watch what is going on but do not provide feedback about the situation to show they are on anyone’s side. Even so, providing an audience may encourage bullying behavior. These witnesses may want to help but do not know-how.
  • Those who Defend: These witnesses actively comfort the person being bullied and may come to their defense when bullying occurs.

Most participants play more than one role in bullying over time. In some cases, they may be directly involved in bullying as the one bullying others or being bullied. In others, they may witness bullying and play an assisting or defending role. Every situation is different. Some kids are both bullied and bully others. It is important to note the multiple roles kids play, because those who are both bullied and bully others may be at more risk for adverse outcomes, such as depression or suicidal ideation. Also, it highlights the need to engage all kids in prevention efforts, not just those who are known to be directly involved.

Bystanders: Become an Upstander to Bullying

Video 11.4.1. Bystander discusses the roles of a bullying incident and how bystanders may be key to preventing and stopping bullying.

Who Is at Risk?

No single factor puts a child at risk of being bullied or bullying others. Bullying can happen anywhere—cities, suburbs, or rural towns. Depending on the environment, some groups—such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) youth, youth with disabilities, and socially isolated youth—may be at an increased risk of being bullied.

Those at Risk of Being Bullied

Generally, those who are bullied have one or more risk factors. Adolescents that are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool” are at risk for bullying. As are those perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves or are less popular than others and have few friends. Also, at risk for bullying are those that are depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem. Finally, those that do not get along well with others, are seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention are more likely to be bullied. However, even if a child has these risk factors, it does not mean that they will be bullied.

Those More Likely to Bully Others

There are two types of kids who are more likely to bully others. The first is well-connected to their peers, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity, and like to dominate or be in charge of others. The others are more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious, have low self-esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others.

There are specific risk factors that make someone more likely to bully others. Those that are aggressive or easily frustrated, have difficulty following rules, and view violence in a positive way are more likely to bully. Also, those that think badly of others and have friends who bully are at higher risk for the same behavior. Finally, kids that have less parental involvement or are having issues at home may display more bullying behaviors.

Remember, those who bully others do not need to be stronger or bigger than those they bully. The power imbalance can come from several sources—popularity, strength, cognitive ability—and children who bully may have more than one of these characteristics.

Warning Signs of Bullying

There are many warning signs that may indicate that someone is affected by bullying—either being bullied or bullying others. Recognizing the warning signs is an essential first step in taking action against bullying. Not all children who are bullied or are bullying others ask for help.

It is important to talk with children who show signs of being bullied or bullying others. These warning signs can also point to other issues or problems, such as depression or substance abuse. Talking to the child can help identify the root of the problem.

Signs of Being Bullied

Look for changes in the child. However, be aware that not all children who are bullied exhibit warning signs. Some signs that may point to a bullying problem are unexplainable injuries or lost and destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry. Those being bullied may report frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness. They may have changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch. They may also have difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.

Signs of Bullying Others

Kids may be bullying others if they get into physical or verbal fights or have friends who bully others. They may demonstrate increasing levels of aggressive behavior and get sent to the principal’s office or detention frequently. They may also have unexplained extra money or new belongings.

Why Don’t Kids Ask for Help?

Statistics from the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety show that an adult was notified in less than half (40%) of bullying incidents. Kids do not tell adults for many reasons. Fo one, bullying can make a child feel helpless. Kids may want to handle it on their own to feel in control again. They may fear being seen as weak or a tattletale. Kids may fear backlash from the kid who bullied them. Bullying can be a humiliating experience. Kids may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They may also fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak. Kids who are bullied may already feel socially isolated. They may feel like no one cares or could understand. Finally, kids may fear being rejected by their peers. Friends can help protect kids from bullying, and kids can fear of losing this support.

Effects of Bullying

Bullying can affect everyone—those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. Bullying is linked to many negative outcomes, including impacts on mental health, substance use, and suicide. It is important to talk to kids to determine whether bullying—or something else—is a concern.

Kids Who Are Bullied

Kids who are bullied can experience negative physical, school, and mental health issues. Kids who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. These issues may persist into adulthood. They may have more health complaints. Decreased academic achievement and school participation is a common effect of being bullied. They are also more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school. A very small number of bullied kids might retaliate through extremely violent measures. In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.

Kids Who Bully Others

Kids who bully others can also engage in violent and other risky behaviors into adulthood. Kids who bully are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults. They are also more likely to get into fights, vandalize property, and drop out of school. They have criminal convictions and traffic citations as adults. They may engage in early sexual activity. They are also more likely to be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults.


Kids who witness bullying are more likely to miss or skip school. They are also more like to use tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. Bystanders are at increased risk of developing mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.

The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide

Media reports often link bullying with suicide. However, most youth who are bullied do not have thoughts of suicide or engage in suicidal behaviors. Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.

Special Concern: Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else, causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.

With the prevalence of social media and digital forums, comments, photos, posts, and content shared by individuals can often be viewed by strangers, as well as acquaintances. The content an individual shares online — both their personal content as well as any negative, mean, or hurtful content — creates a kind of permanent public record of their views, activities, and behavior. This public record can be thought of as an online reputation, which may be accessible to schools, employers, colleges, clubs, and others who may be researching an individual now or in the future. Cyberbullying can harm the online reputations of everyone involved – not just the person being bullied, but those doing the bullying or participating in it. Cyberbullying has unique concerns in that it can be:

  • Persistent: Digital devices offer the ability to immediately and continuously communicate 24 hours a day, so it can be difficult for children experiencing cyberbullying to find relief.
  • Permanent: Most information communicated electronically is permanent and public, if not reported and removed. A negative online reputation, including for those who bully, can impact college admissions, employment, and other areas of life.
  • Hard to Notice: Because teachers and parents may not overhear or see cyberbullying taking place, it is harder to recognize.

Cyberbullying and Online Gaming

Playing videogames is a popular activity, with 72 percent of teens gaming online. Many video games — whether they are console, web, or computer-based — allow users to play with friends they know in person and others they have met only online. While gaming can have positive benefits like making new friends, socializing, and learning how to strategize and problem solve, it is also another place where cyberbullying occurs.

The anonymity of players and the use of avatars allow users to create alter-egos or fictional versions of themselves, which is part of the fun of gaming. However, it also allows users to harass, bully, and sometimes gang up on other players, sending or posting negative or hurtful messages and using the game as a tool of harassment. If someone is not performing well, other children may curse or make negative remarks that turn into bullying, or they might exclude the person from playing together.

Because players are anonymous, they cannot necessarily be held accountable for their behavior, and their harassment can cause some players to leave games. Some anonymous users use the game as a means to harass strangers or to get their personal information, like user names and passwords.

There are things adults can do to prevent cyberbullying of children who are gaming. Parents should play the game or observe when the gaming happens to understand how it works and what a child is exposed to in the game. Check-in periodically with children about who is online, playing the game with them. Teach children about safe online behavior, including not clicking on links from strangers, not sharing personal information, not participating in bullying behavior of other players, and what to do if they observe or experience bullying. Establish rules about how much time a child can spend playing video games.

Warning Signs of Cyberbullying

Many of the warning signs that cyberbullying is occurring happen around a child’s use of their device. Some of the warning signs that a kid may be involved in cyberbullying include noticeable increases or decreases in device use. Kids may exhibit unusual emotional responses (laughter, anger, upset) to what is happening on their device. A teen hides their screen or device when others are near, and avoids discussion about what they are doing on their device. There may be sudden changes to social media accounts, with accounts being shut down or new ones appear. If a teen starts to avoid social situations, even those that were enjoyed in the past. Alternatively, if they become withdrawn or depressed, or loses interest in people and activities.

What to Do When Cyberbullying Happens

When warning signs that a child may be involved in cyberbullying, adults should take steps to investigate that kid’s digital behavior. Cyberbullying is a form of bullying, and adults should take the same approach to address it: support the person being bullied, address the bullying behavior of a participant, and show all involved that cyberbullying is taken seriously. Because cyberbullying happens online, responding to it requires different approaches. If an adult thinks that cyberbullying is occurring, several things can be done. First, recognize if there has been a change in mood or behavior and explore what the cause might be. Try to determine if these changes happen around a child’s use of their digital devices. Ask questions to learn what is happening, how it started, and who is involved. Document what is happening and where. Take screenshots of harmful posts or content, if possible. Most laws and policies note that bullying is a repeated behavior, so records help to document it. Report issues to social media platforms and refer to the school’s reporting policies. If a child has received physical threats, or if a potential crime or illegal behavior is occurring, report it to the police. Provide support. Peers, mentors, and trusted adults can sometimes intervene publicly to positively influence a situation where negative or hurtful content posts about a child. Public Intervention can include posting positive comments about the person targeted with bullying to try to shift the conversation in a positive direction. It can also help to reach out to the child who is bullying and the target of the bullying to express concern. If possible, try to determine if more professional support is needed for those involved, such as speaking with a guidance counselor or mental health professional.

Watch it

Video 11.4.2. Ways to Stop Bullying.