image Bullying is a common problem among children and teenagers that can have devastating and long-term effects. However, only in recent years has bullying begun to gain attention as a serious health issue rather than just a harmless part of growing up. Youth and adults are now learning how to take action to stop this type of behavior.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is aggressive behavior toward another person that is intended to cause harm and is repeated over time. It involves an imbalance of power where a person or group attacks someone weaker or more vulnerable. Bullying can take many forms, including:

  • Physical, e.g., hitting, punching, kicking, pushing
  • Verbal, e.g., yelling, teasing, name-calling
  • Indirect, e.g., spreading rumors, excluding others
  • Cyberbullying, e.g., spreading insulting messages by e-mail and on the Internet

How Common Is Bullying?

In a nationally representative survey of over 15,000 students in grades 6 to 10 published in 2001 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 30% of the students reported being moderately or frequently involved in bullying. Of these students, 13% bullied others, 11% were the target of bullies, and 6% both bullied others and were the target of bullies. Bullying occurred more often among 6-8th graders than among 9-10th graders.

Boys were more likely than girls to both be bullies and be the target of bullies. While boys bully both boys and girls, girls more often bully other girls. Boys are more likely to use physical bullying while girls are more often involved in spreading rumors and sexual comments and excluding others.

Bullying occurs both at school and out in the community. However, it happens more often at school, and usually where there is little or no adult supervision, for example, in cafeterias, hallways, and bathrooms, and on playgrounds.

What Are Common Characteristics of Bullies and Their Victims?

There is no single cause of bullying. Individual, family, peer, school, and community factors may all contribute. However, several characteristics are common among youth who bully regularly; they:

  • Are impulsive and dominant
  • Are easily frustrated
  • See violence as a good solution to conflict
  • Lack empathy
  • Get in trouble often
  • Have poor academic achievement
  • Are more likely to drink and smoke
  • Youth who are most likely to get bullied tend to be insecure, cautious, sensitive, and have trouble asserting themselves. They are often socially isolated and feel lonely. This puts them at greater risk for being bullied. Male victims are often physically weaker than their peers.

What Are The Effects of Bullying?

Bullying can seriously affect the emotional and physical health and academic achievement of victims. It can result in fear, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Targets of bullying may be afraid to go to school and other places and may become socially isolated, withdrawn, and depressed. They may develop physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches. Some youth may carry weapons for protection and become violent to get revenge. The effects can be long-term, with the victims continuing to experience depression and low self-esteem into adulthood. In extreme cases, bullying can lead to suicide.

  • According to a study published in 2003 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, bullying can lead to more serious violent behavior such as carrying weapons and getting into physical fights. An earlier study found that boys who bullied were more likely to engage in criminal behavior when they were older. Bullies, too, are at increased risk for suicide.

Many bullying episodes are witnessed by other youth. Often others do not get involved because they do not know how to stop the bullying or fear becoming victims themselves. They may feel helpless or guilty for not stopping the bully or not reporting the incident. If they are drawn into the bullying by peer pressure, they may feel even more guilt.

What Can Youth Do?

If you are getting bullied:

Talk with your parents or another adult you trust, such as a teacher or school counselor.

Don’t fight back because that could make things worse. Stay calm and tell the person to stop, or just walk away.

Act confident. If you seem self-confident, a bully will be less likely to start or continue bullying you.

Make friends with other people you enjoy. If you are with friends, a bully is less likely to go after you.

Avoid situations in which bullying can occur.

If another person is getting bullied:

Refuse to join the bullying.

Try to help by drawing attention away from the victim or asking the bully to stop, if you can do this without putting yourself at risk.

Get a teacher, parent, or another adult to help.

Help the person who is being bullied if you can, or at least support him or her later.

Encourage the victim to talk with parents or another adult he or she trusts.

What Can Parents Do?

If your child is getting bullied:

Take the situation seriously and support your child. Explain that it is not his or her fault.

Tell your child not to fight back, but rather to walk away and get an adult to help.

Talk with your child’s principal and/or teacher. Ask them what they will do to stop the bullying.

Encourage your child to make friends and stay with friends where bullying may occur.

Watch for signs that your child may be getting bullied, e.g., unexplained cuts or bruises, mood changes and withdrawal, and fear of going to school.

If your child is bullying others:

Tell your child you will not tolerate the bullying. Set and enforce consistent rules for your child’s behavior. Praise your child for positive behavior.

Teach your child to manage anger without violence.

Monitor your child’s activities and relationships with friends.

Encourage your child to become involved in positive activities, e.g., sports, music lessons.

Work together with your child’s teacher and/or principal. If necessary, get help from a school counselor and/or mental health professional.