Bullying: Definition, Causes, and Prevention

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The problem of bullying has been the highlight of many news articles and reports in the recent decade. Bullying problems often arise in social settings, such as during school hours. Bullying has been depicted as a major problem contributing to the rates of teenage suicide, trauma, and disruptions in academic settings. This research paper will define the term bullying in its different forms, the risk factors for bullying, its consequences, and what academic administrations and parents can do to prevent the typical causes of bullying.

Definition of Bullying

According to stopbullying.gov (n. d., Bullying Definition), bullying describes a relationship or a set of interactions between two individuals, usually school-aged children, where one child is in the position of power over another child. The child in power usually has a perceived advantage over the bullying victim, such as height or strength, knowledge of a secret, or higher social status. The power is used in controlling the victim, or to hurt the victim. 

There are three sets of behaviors that are typically present within the bullying dynamics. “Verbal bullying” (stopbullying.gov, n. d., Types of Bullying) characterizes what a bully says to control or hurt the victim. Behaviors include saying mean things, calling a person nasty names, writing mean notes, sexual harassment, threats and intimidation, taunts and catcalling. “Social bullying” (stopbullying.gov, n. d., Types of Bullying) refers to libel, slander, purposeful exclusion, or creating an embarrassing situation in public for another person. “Physical bullying” (stopbullying.gov, n. d., Types of Bullying) refers to physical acts to hurt another child; “Hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping, pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things, and making mean or rude hand gestures” (stopbullying.gov, n. d., Types of Bullying).

In recent decades, bullying behavior has also spread to the internet, cell phones via texting, emails, and voice messages, according to stopbullying.gov (n. d, Cyberbullying). Cyberbullying can hurt a victim via verbal threats, social embarrassment, and any other verbal or social behavior they can do in person, and it’s through personal electronic devices. Parents find this type of bullying most troublesome, because it gives the bullies access to their victims at all hours of the day and night, able to even reach them in their homes, whereas before the existence of these devices, a victim at least had some respite in their homes. Embarrassing photographs and messages can be placed on the internet, where it is difficult to trace who is committing the act and to erase the damaging messages once they are posted, bringing libel and slander to an entirely new level. It's up to the parents to digitally monitor their children at home. Bullying behaviors are associated with disturbing consequences for the victims. The following section discusses the potential mental and emotional ramifications for victims of bullying.

Characteristics of Children Engaging in the Bully-Victim Paradigm

According to stopbullying.gov (n. d.), while bullying can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time, there are some characteristics that leave some individuals more vulnerable to becoming the victims of bullying than others. These characteristics are listed in the following section.

At-Risk Children – The Victims

According to stopbullying.org (n. d., Who Is at Risk), children and teens might be at a higher risk for bullying victimization when:

Perceived to be different than their classmates in physical appearance, how they dress, or what they own or don’t own.

Perceived to be physically or emotionally weaker

“Depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem” (stopbullying.org, n. d., Children at Risk for Being Bullied). 

Perceived to not have as many friends by others, or are not in with the “cool kids”.

They have social conduct issues or garner attention from peers in ways that are not productive. 

Olweus (1993) also has these characteristics to add for children at risk:

They approach situations cautiously, their feelings are hurt easily, are not as boisterous or outgoing as others.

Have a low self-opinion, have a high degree of anxiety, and are not happy. 

Have some degree of depression and have thoughts of suicide. 

They do not connect well with children their age, lack friendship altogether, or relate better to adults.

Males who lack physical prowess.

Bully Characteristics

According to the American Psychological Association (2004), children who bully have the following characteristics:

They seek to control other individuals.

Have short tempers and poor impulse control.

Show signs of conduct disorder.

Behave aggressively towards authority.

Display an inability to empathize.

If male, they are stronger or taller than their peers.

However, as the American Psychological Association (2004) observed, bullies don’t have to be anxious, aggressive outcasts. Rather, bullies often do have higher self-esteem, research shows, and are considered more popular by their peers.

Bullying and Its Emotional, Mental, and Social Consequences

Bullying is a social problem affecting many lives. After several news stories of teenagers committing suicide because of repeated bullying incidences over the past decade, more research has been conducted to learn about the problem of bullying and how this dynamic affects both its victims and its aggressors. It has found for those within the dynamics of the bully/victim relationship, the victims, as well as the aggressors, often suffer from the effects of the relationship into adulthood.

Indications a Child is Being Bullied

According to stopbullying.gov (n. d., Warning Signs), a victim of bullying incidences might not speak about the episodes of abuse. The child might be too embarrassed to speak about it with their parents. Parents might have to look to their behaviors for indicators of bullying surfacing as a problem is their children’s lives.

Some signs a child is being bullied might manifest in the following ways:

Bruises, cuts, or other abrasions the child does not want to explain.

Ruined, broken, or missing personal property.

Physical signs of anxiety, such as stomach upset, headaches, or malingering of symptoms.

Increase or decrease in eating habits or appetites.

Insomnia and nightmares.

Dropping grades and frequent absences

Loss of friendship and avoiding social interaction

Loss of self-esteem

Acting out – running away, expressing suicidal tendencies, and “cutting”.

The Behavior of Bullies

As stopbullying.gov (n. d., Warning Signs) indicated, bullies also show a set of behaviors that parents should be on the lookout for, including but not limited to:

Gets into trouble for fighting with peers, possibly with friends that do the same.

Is punished for being aggressive.

Has unexplained new items that weren’t bought.

Does not take responsibility.

Is overly competitive or obsesses over social status.

Bullying Victims – Scared Into Silence

According to stopbullying.org (n. d., Warning Signs), only 30% of bullying incidences get reported. There are many reasons why a bully victim may not speak about the abuse, including being scared about being labeled a tattletale, wanting to handle the situation themselves to feel strong again, fear of the adults in their lives also seeing them as the bully sees them, the child is used to being alone, and being rejected from the friends they already have. Also, the nature of the relationship dynamics is naturally inclined towards a child being scared into silence. The victims might feel as if the bullying is their fault, that they aren’t strong enough.

Correlations for Cyberbullying and Mental Health 

As stopbullying.org (n. d., Cyberbullying), cyberbullying is linked to problematic childhood behaviors. Children might have increased rates of alcoholism, truancy, poor academic performance, health issues, and low self-worth.

The Correlation Between Childhood Bullying and Adult Mental Health

According to Perugini (2013),  the tip of the iceberg has been tapped for research into adults who were bullied or were bullies and the correlation with mental health issues. So far, there have been a number of disorders that were found to have higher incidences in adults who were bullied as children: “Youth who were victims of bullying had a higher chance of having agoraphobia, anxiety and panic disorders; Youth who bullied were at risk for antisocial personality disorder; Youth who bullied who were also victims of bullying were at a higher risk for adult depression and panic disorder. For this group, there was an increased risk for agoraphobia in females and suicidality in males.” (para. 3) 

What Parents and Teachers Can Do

According to stopbullying.gov (n. d.), awareness of the problem is higher than ever. Government initiatives on the state and federal levels are being created to help alleviate the problem of bullying with legal means. Programs such as NEA's Bully Free are also aim to combat bullying. The best thing parents and children can do, states stopbullying.gov (n. d.), is to keep talking about bullying behaviors, and to take a stand when one sees it. Also, children take social cues from the adults in their lives, so adults should self-monitor their own behaviors. Also, do activities with children that help them do what they are enthusiastic about, and build self-confidence.

In conclusion, bullying is a big social problem that can have a long-lasting impact on both the bullies and the victims. Behaviors and warning signs were addressed, as well as ways to combat the problem of bullying. Thankfully, more attention is being brought to this problem. Hopefully, with our communities working together, bullying will be a thing of the past.


American Psychological Association (2004). School bullying is nothing new, but psychologists identify new ways to prevent it. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/research/action/bullying.aspx

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Perugini, C. (2013). Research brief: Childhood bullying linked to adult psychiatric disorders. Retrieved from http://www.stopbullying.gov/blog/2013/05/31/research-brief-childhood-bullying-linked-adult-psychiatric-disorders

Stopbullying.org. (n. d.). Bullying definition. Retrieved from http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/index.html

Stopbullying.org. (n. d.). Cyberbullying. Retrieved from http://www.stopbullying.gov/cyberbullying/index.html

Stopbullying.org. (n. d.). Risk factors. Retrieved from http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/factors/index.html

Stopbullying.org. (n. d.) Warning signs. http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/warning-signs/index.html