Understanding Bullying

What is bullying?

Bullying is repetitive, intentionally aggressive behavior — in person or online — that causes hurt or discomfort to another person. Bullying comes in many forms: violent or unwanted physical contact, behavior meant to provoke a fight or confrontation, verbal comments meant to belittle, demean or control, or other kinds of actions with the intent of harassing, humiliating or otherwise causing emotional and/or physical discomfort. Bullying may feel and be unprovoked, and victims often experience powerlessness to defend themselves.

Even if the interaction is brief,  bullying often causes more than momentary physical or emotional discomfort. According to the American Psychological Association, being the recipient of bullying, especially if repeated, can contribute to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Victims of bullying often have trouble adjusting to school, feel unhappy or unsafe, experience loneliness and withdrawal, and can even have thoughts of suicide. They’re also more likely to be rejected by their peers.

Types of bullying

While cyberbullying and offline bullying happen in different ways, they’re both destructive to the victims:

  • Offline bullying is bullying in person in the form of physical threats or violence and/or verbal taunts, threats or insults.
  • Cyberbullying is bullying online, in the form of emails, instant messages, or social media posts.

Bullying is unfortunately quite common, especially online. The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey¹ found that nearly 1 in 4 high school students experience in-person bullying or aggression; this is significantly higher for girls and for LGBTQ+ students and students questioning their sexual identity.

Cyberbullying is even more common than offline bullying. About 37% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have been bullied online and 30% have had it happen more than once. And, it’s quite common for youth being bullied offline to also be bullied online.

In-person bullying and cyberbullying often overlap — students may start rumors or fights online and continue the aggressive behavior in schools or community settings where they encounter each other in person. Conversely, bullying behavior may start in person and then continue in online spaces. Rumors, veiled insults, purposely excluding someone, and even dirty looks or nonverbal cues are all forms of covert bullying.

It’s not only common to be a victim of bullying as an adolescent, engaging in bullying behavior is also quite common; 23% of students in a large national study reported that they’ve said or done something mean or cruel to another person online, with 27% reporting that they’ve experienced the same from someone else.

¹ Basile, K. C., Clayton, H. B., DeGue, S., Gilford, J. W., Vagi, K. J., Suarez, N. A., … & Lowry, R. (2020). Interpersonal Violence Victimization Among High School Students—Youth Risk Behavior Survey, United States, 2019. MMWR supplements, 69(1), 28.

What are the signs of bullying?

It’s important to recognize the signs of bullying — for ourselves and others — so that we can take action when someone we know or love is being bullied. According to stopbullying.gov this can manifest or show up in many different ways including:

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Missing or destroyed clothing or possessions
  • Frequently feeling or faking sick
  • Suddenly skipping meals or binge eating; kids may come home from school hungry because they didn’t eat lunch
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining academic performance or interest
  • Unexplained or sudden social avoidance or loss of friendships
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, self-harm, or suicidal ideation

In partnership with Instagram, JED has created a Pressure To Be Perfect Toolkit, aimed at helping to free us from the pressure of thinking we need to conform to a certain set of standards when we post. It also helps you move from a mindset of comparing yourself with others to one where you’re thoughtfully sharing yourself with others to make your time on Instagram more intentional and rewarding.

What makes someone vulnerable to bullying?

Anyone can be bullied, but there are some conditions and characteristics that increase risk especially, when students are different than most of their peers and they don’t feel they belong.Certain situations or risk factors can make someone more likely to be targeted:

  • Kids who are bullied at home by siblings are more likely to be targeted at school according to the APA
  • Higher ADHD symptoms are associated with bullying victimization
  • Girls are more likely than boys to be both victims and perpetrators of cyber bullying, with 15% of teen girls having been the target of at least four different kinds of abusive online behaviors (compared with 6% of boys)
  • About half of LGBTQ+ students experience online harassment — a rate higher than average
  • Bullying behaviors often stem from wide forms of harassment/discrimination such as religion, ableism, homophobia, racism, classism, etc.

Causes for bullying

Anyone can engage in bullying behavior. Many of us have the experience of being more aggressive or of using less than kind tactics to get what we want at some point in life, often when we’re young and learning about relationships. Most of us, however, learn from these experiences and figure out how to advocate for what we want or express anger in healthier ways. Sometimes, people feel so unable to ask for what they want or need or have so much pent up anger or anxiety, that they abuse or manipulate other people. It’s unsurprising then that people who engage in bullying regularly tend to have low self-esteem, low academic achievement, and symptoms of anxiety. 

Research also shows that the most significant predictor for bullying is an environment that allows for bullying and/or which creates difficult or intolerable psychological conditions in the person who bullies. This includes:

  • Family members’ involvement in gangs
  • Poor parental supervision
  • Parental conflict
  • Domestic violence
  • Low parental communication
  • Lack of parental emotional support
  • Authoritarian parenting
  • Inappropriate discipline
  • Parental abuse

Children of single parents, especially when relationships with the parent are strained or distant, are also at risk of becoming perpetrators of bullying, as are boys suffering from depression.

Recognizing bullying

People who’ve been bullied are also at heightened risk of bullying and vice versa, depending on other personal and life characteristics. For example, in a study of over 3,000 7th grade students, bullying victims with higher self-esteem were more likely to engage in future bullying perpetration, whereas victims with lower self-esteem were less likely to bully in the future. While none of us want to think that we would ever be the bully, it’s important to note that someone engaging in bullying may not recognize it as bullying, despite how clear it may be to others.

So what are some signs that we might be doing the bullying?

  • Often feeling resentful, jealous or like we’re not getting the recognition we deserve
  • Struggling with empathy and becoming aggressive when we’re unhappy with someone; this could be loud or quiet (e.g., passive aggression)
  • Upsetting people around us — causing them to be agitated or tearful in reaction to our moods and behaviors

From an emotional health perspective, perpetuating bullying is associated with anxiety, depression, susceptibility to peer pressure, endorsement of “masculine” traits, conduct problems, antisocial personality traits, and callous-unemotional traits. But this cycle doesn’t have to continue and there are ways to get help and cope.

If you think you’re being bullied or think you’re a bully, check out our How to Cope with Bullying article. And if you need help immediately, text “START” to 741-741 or call 988.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.