What is Bullying?

Most generally, the term bullying is equated to the concept of harassment, which is a form of unprovoked aggression often directed repeatedly toward another individual or group of individuals.[1] However, bullying tends to become more insidious as it continues over time and may be better equated to violence rather than harassment. Accordingly, Erling Roland states that bullying is “longstanding violence, physical or psychological, conducted by an individual or a group directed against an individual who is not able to defend himself in the actual situation.” [2:21]

Scandinavian researcher Dan Olweus, who is arguably most responsible for the current academic interest in the topic, defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time.”[3-5] Tonja Nansel, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health, and her colleagues’ define bullying as aggressive behavior or intentional “harm doing” by one person or a group, generally carried out repeatedly and over time and involving a power differential.[6] Finally, the Minnesota Department of Education states that “definitions of bullying vary, but most agree that bullying includes the intent to harm, repetition, and a power imbalance between the student targeted and the student who bullies.”[7]

In January of 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Education, and the Health Resources and Services Administration, worked with a number of bullying experts across various fields to develop a uniform definition of bullying:

Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.[8]

This is as good a definition as is currently available yet still likely falls short. Despite the variation across different perspectives, certain dominant themes are pretty obvious. First, the behavior is intentional and purposed rather than accidental or inadvertent. Accidents happen all of the time on the playground, and some of these result in physical harm. Still, most people recognize that accidental or unintentional behaviors do not constitute bullying. Most state bullying laws explicitly include an element of intent. For example, Delaware law characterizes bullying as an “intentional written, electronic, verbal or physical act.”[9] Louisiana defines cyberbullying as “the transmission of any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person.”[10] Indeed, intent is generally a fundamental component of criminal law. In order to hold someone criminally responsible, not only must we establish that the person engaged in a wrongful act, but that he or she did so with mens rea, that is, a guilty mind. When it comes to law there are always exceptions, and we believe that the vast majority of bullying incidents can and should be handled outside of the formal law. The point is that most academic and legal definitions of bullying include intent.

Second, bullying necessarily involves maliciousness on the part of the aggressor, and that maliciousness is one type of violence. Researchers have attempted to categorize various types of bullying violence in multiple ways. Some have focused on differentiating between direct aggression and indirect aggression.[11-15] Direct aggression involves physical violence (hitting, kicking, taking items by force) and verbal violence (taunting, teasing, threatening).[16] Indirect aggression includes more subtle, manipulative acts such as ostracizing, intimidating, or controlling another person.[17] Others have focused on distinguishing between overt and covert (relational) forms of aggression. Overt aggression might involve name-calling, pushing, or hitting, while relational aggression includes gossip, rumor spreading, social sabotage, exclusion, and other behaviors destructive to interpersonal relationships.[18-22]

Third, one instance of aggression is not sufficient to qualify as bullying; to be considered bullying, behavior must occur, or present the threat of occurring, on a repetitive basis. This is one of the features that distinguishes bullying from other forms of peer harassment. We should clarify that just because a hurtful behavior only happens once doesn’t mean that it should be ignored. It just means that it isn’t accurate to refer to it as bullying. But part of the reason bullying can be so emotionally or psychologically damaging is because it is repetitive. The repetitive nature of bullying creates a dynamic where the victim continuously worries about what the bully will do next. Indeed, the target often alters his or her daily behaviors to avoid personal contact with the bully because it is assumed that something bad will happen if they interact. Do you personally remember choosing to go down different hallways or to show up to class right when it began instead of early to avoid spending unnecessary “quality time” with someone who always hassled you? We vividly recall instances from our middle school days that taught us the art of skillfully dodging any run-ins with the bullies in our respective lives.

Fourth, inherent in any conception of bullying is the demonstration (or interpretation) of power by the offender over the target. If both parties were equal (socially, physically, or otherwise), one might think that neither has the proverbial upper hand. With differential levels of power, though, bullying can occur. Many characteristics can give a bully perceived or actual power over a victim, including popularity, physical strength or stature, social competence, quick wit, extroversion, confidence, intelligence, age, sex, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.[3, 5, 23-26] And even more relevant to the primary topic of this text, technological proficiency can imbue a person with power over another. Youth who are able to skillfully navigate online environments or who know how to cover their virtual tracks have a leg up on a newbie who doesn’t fully understand how to set up their accounts properly, or how to identify the authors of hurtful content.

Excerpted from: “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying

Suggested citation:  

Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.