Bullying is intentional behavior that causes another person discomfort or harm. Read the overview below to gain an understanding of the issue and explore the previews of opinion articles that examine approaches to address bullying.

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Bullying Topic Overview

"Bullying."  Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2019. 

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In the United States, the definition of bullying has expanded beyond traditional notions of a bigger, stronger child picking on a smaller, weaker victim and typically includes four key elements. The first part of the definition now includes significant physical, emotional, or psychological harm to the victim. The second is the inability of the victim to stop the bully on his or her own. The third is a power imbalance in which the bully holds more emotional, physical, or social influence than the victim. The last is repetitive actions committed by the bully that continue for an extended period. Bullying can occur in virtually any interpersonal setting. While it affects young people as well as adults, the issue is primarily considered in contexts involving school-aged children and adolescents. 

Advocacy organizations like PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center note that definitions of the term vary according to the educational and legal institutions that deal with the majority of bullying cases. Exceptions to the four elements may occur; for example, if a harmful behavior is severe enough, it may be defined as bullying even if it only occurs on one occasion. 

Antibullying advocates divide bullying behavior into four main types:  

  • Physical bullying: Bullies physically assault their victims or intimidate their victims with the threat of physical violence. 

  • Verbal bullying: Bullies mock, shame, and verbally abuse victims with the intent of causing fear or feelings of self-deprecation. 

  • Social or emotional bullying: Bullies initiate or spread harmful gossip, or intentionally exclude others with the intent of harming or destroying the victim's reputation or social standing. 

  • Cyberbullying: Bullies use electronic media, including social networks, instant messaging, text messaging, Internet forums, smartphone applications, and email (among other media) to target victims with text-based equivalents of verbal bullying, or social or emotional forms of bullying. 

As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2018, bullying is a common phenomenon in US schools. According to the report, one in five high school students reported being bullied on school grounds in the twelve-month period prior to being surveyed. Victimization rates are higher for female students (22 percent) than male students (16 percent). A 2018 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found higher victimization rates among middle school students (30 percent of sixth graders and 25 percent of eighth graders) than older students (15 percent of eleventh graders and 12 percent of twelfth graders). Differences were also noted among students in urban and nonurban environments, with 18 percent of students at urban schools, 20 percent of students at suburban schools, and 27 percent of students at rural schools reporting being bullied. Among racial and ethnic groups, 27 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students, 23 percent of students of two or more races, 23 percent of black students, 23 percent of white students, 16 percent of Hispanic students, and 7 percent of Asian students reported being bullied. 

Bullies, Victims, and Bully-Victims 

A meta-analysis of bullying research performed by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Washington has identified several noteworthy characteristics of bullies as well as victims. Researchers found that bullies tend to struggle academically and have problems resolving interpersonal conflicts. They often come from home environments marked by conflict, violence, low levels of parental investment, or parental absenteeism and have been found to harbor negative feelings about themselves and school environments while being prone to negative peer influences. Age appears to influence bullying behavior in specific ways. Younger bullies tend to defy authority figures, be disruptive in class, and behave aggressively; older bullies display more qualities associated with anxiety, depression, and social withdrawal. 

Victims of bullying, on the other hand, often have limited social circles and underdeveloped social skills. They tend to come from negative home and family environments and have a history of being isolated or rejected by peer groups. They are often perceived as weak or otherwise unable to defend themselves. Victims of bullying also tend to have negative outlooks and attitudes and experience difficulties functioning in social settings and solving problems posed by immersion in social environments. The term bully-victims refers to individuals who bully others while also being bullied themselves. For instance, a bully-victim may be targeted by older students, then respond by bullying younger students. In addition to negative self-images and negative attitudes toward peers, bully-victims often struggle in social situations and are easily influenced in negative ways by the friends and peers with whom they do have regular contact. 

Impact and Outcomes 

The consequences of bullying can be serious and long-lasting. Young people who are bullied are at increased risk for negative psychological and emotional impacts including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, alcohol and drug abuse, hostility, delinquency, self-harming behavior (particularly for girls), and violent or criminal behavior (particularly for boys). Those who are severely bullied are also statistically more likely to attempt or commit suicide, and studies have shown that suicidal ideations are particularly common among bully-victims. Bullying can trigger mental health problems in victims who did not previously have any, and it can exacerbate problems in young people with existing mental health issues. Research has also shown that bullying victims tend to suffer declines in academic performance. 

Beyond the risk of injury from a bully's physical attack, victims may also experience physical symptoms such as sleep disruptions, chronic pain, and psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, heart palpitations, and dizziness. Bullying victims also tend to produce higher levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, which can interfere with normal brain function. Some researchers theorize that heightened cortisol levels may explain some of the behavioral issues associated with victimization, such as acting out and showing aggression toward peers, siblings, or parents. 

Some student population groups are statistically more likely to be targeted by bullies. Young people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community are at increased risk, as are special-needs students, students with disabilities, and overweight or obese students. Racial, ethnic, and religious minorities also tend to attract higher rates of attention from bullies than members of majority groups. For example, black students are bullied at higher rates than both white and Hispanic students. Similarly, Muslim girls who wear hijabs and headscarves, Sikh boys who wear turbans, and Jewish boys who wear yarmulkes also report being targeted specifically because of these articles of clothing. 

Prevention and Intervention 

Experts often refer to a phenomenon known as the bystander effect to help explain why witnesses may not intervene to stop a bully from harassing a victim. A bystander is understood to be someone who is aware that bullying is taking place, but takes no action to stop it, chooses not to report it, or ignores it altogether. 

The bystander effect usually occurs as the result of one or more of four factors: the witness believes that the incident is not their concern or none of their business and thus elects not to get involved; the witness believes, correctly or incorrectly, that intervening may draw negative attention from the bully and make the witness more likely to become the bully's next target; the witness does not want to violate unwritten codes of conduct among students by telling an authority figure what is happening; and the witness believes that intervening will neither stop the bully nor help the victim. 

To help counteract the bystander effect, many schools have introduced what are commonly referred to as bystander intervention programs. These programs include specific, actionable steps students are encouraged to take if they witness bullying. They are built on fostering a general school environment that promotes community values and interconnectedness, and they teach students the difference between "telling on someone" and "reporting a pattern of problem behavior." Such initiatives also work to create empathy between bystanders and victims, and to set up peer monitoring networks to prevent bullying when adult supervisors are not present. They also aim to empower witnesses and bystanders so that they feel more able to come forward. 

Protective strategies recommended by StopBullying.gov, a website of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), include maintaining positive relationships with teachers, building healthy friendships, and avoiding unsupervised areas of the school or playground. Recent studies have also given rise to a newer set of strategies such as using humor to defuse tense interpersonal situations and having a potential victim "own" or acknowledge a bully's hurtful statement to reduce its perceived impact. More traditional responses, including pretending to be unaffected and walking away from the situation, continue to be recommended. Responding with aggression or mocking are not recommended, as either may trigger the bully to escalate the situation. 

With cyberbullying emerging as a new problem for young people, advocates and educators also instruct students in online safety best practices. One noteworthy strategy revolves around a set of principles known as the "forever principle," the "no privacy principle," and the "ex principle." These principles encourage students to assume that anything they post online will be there forever, that they have no privacy in virtual environments and all information they post can be traced back to them, and that they should never post anything online that they would not trust with an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. 

School administrators also stress the importance of implementing bullying prevention practices, with multitiered systems of support (MTSS) frameworks being considered particularly effective. MTSS models institute universal screening practices to identify potential problems, use early interventions with a collaborative approach to problem-solving, and follow up through post-incident progress monitoring. When necessary, they can be expanded to include the application of external social, mental health, or law enforcement services. MTSS protocols can also be applied selectively to better protect at-risk and vulnerable student populations. 

Antibullying Laws and Policies 

In the United States, there are no federal statutes that specifically address bullying. However, many types of bullying behavior are covered under existing federal-level harassment and discrimination laws. Schools can be found legally responsible for student conduct if bullying is based on gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, or a physical or mental disability. 

As of 2019, all fifty US states and the District of Columbia have antibullying laws in place. While the specifics of these laws vary from state to state, most such statutes share some common elements, including purpose statements that declare why the law was passed and how it is to be applied, scope statements that specify the range of social or physical environments covered by the law, lists of prohibited bullying behaviors, prevention education requirements, requirements for district policies, and protocols for the reporting and investigation of bullying incidents. Many of these components were recommended by the Department of Education under the administration of President Barack Obama with the specific purpose of preventing bullying in schools. According to a report published in the Cornell Law Review in 2018, only nine states have laws in place that include all sixteen of the department's recommendations. Research has also found that the effectiveness of state laws may vary. An analysis published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2015 found that state statutes with explicit and detailed descriptions of prohibited conduct and clearly stated legal consequences for offenders had stronger associations with reduced bullying rates. 


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Fast Facts


US Students Ages 12–18 Who Notified an Adult at School after Being Bullied, by Selected Characteristics, 2017

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Source: "US Students Ages 12–18 Who Notified an Adult at School after Being Bullied, by Selected ..." Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2019. www.gale.com.

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