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What is Bullying?

What Is Bullying?

There is no one definition of bullying. Neither youth, nor parents, nor educators, nor policy makers, nor researchers completely agree on what the word means. But in general, “bullying” refers to meanness or cruelty among school-aged youth.
Because few people agree on the specific behaviors that qualify as bullying, hurtful behavior can be difficult to stop and prevent. Fortunately, research and policy provide definitions that can serve as the foundation for successful prevention and intervention plans. Regardless of definitions, if a child reports that she or he is being bullied, she or he must receive help.


What Do The Experts Say? +

Experts typically define behavior as bullying when it has all of the following components:

  1. Aggressive behavior – actions intended to harm someone else. The aggression may be physical, verbal (e.g., name-calling or threats), relational or social (e.g., efforts to destroy friendships or social status), or conducted online (i.e., cyberbullying).
  2. Imbalance of Power –the perpetrator has more power than the person targeted. This power can include being physical bigger or stronger, having more social popularity or having some other advantage that prevents targets from defending themselves in an effective manner. It is not bullying when two children have a conflict or fight. For behavior to be labeled bullying, one child must clearly have more power than the other.
  3. Repetition – the aggression happens over and over, or the target has a reasonable fear that it will happen again.

What Do Youth Say? +

When children and teenagers witness this kind of behavior, they often label it as something else. The word “bullying” doesn’t resonate with some young people, who may instead use words like “drama.” Others may hesitate to use the word bullying, even if they do identify with it, for fear of backlash or retaliation. Therefore, when parents and schools talk about preventing this kind of behavior, they should use a range of words and emphasize that what you call it doesn’t matter – if it’s hurtful, it’s wrong.

When youth do refer to bullying, research has shown that:

  • Most do not identify a power imbalance or repetition as critical components of bullying
  • Most youth do not identify social/relational behaviors as a form of bullying

What Do Policy Makers Say? +

Currently, 49 states have laws that require schools to address bullying. No two laws have exactly the same definition, and some states have no definition at all. For those states with definitions, most:

  • Do not follow the definition used by bullying experts
  • Do not require the behavior to be repeated or for there to be a power imbalance
  • Do define bullying based on who is targeted and the harm that bullying can cause
  • Do include physical and verbal acts, increasingly include acts that occur online, but often fail to include relational/social/emotional bullying

Selected Examples of State Definitions of Bullying:

“Bullying” means any written or verbal expression, or physical act or gesture, or a pattern thereof, that is intended to cause distress upon one or more students in the school, on school grounds, in school vehicles, at a designated school bus stop, or at school activities or sanctioned events. The school district’s policy shall include a reasonable balance between the pattern and the severity of such bullying behavior. Colo. Rev. Stat. §22-32-109.1

(b) In this Section:
“Bullying” means any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or electronically, directed toward a student or students that has or can be reasonably predicted to have the effect of one or more of the following:

  1. placing the student or students in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s or students’ person or property;
  2. causing a substantially detrimental effect on the student’s or students’ physical or mental health;
  3. substantially interfering with the student’s or students’ academic performance; or
  4. substantially interfering with the student’s or students’ ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school.

Bullying, as defined in this subsection (b), may take various forms, including without limitation one or more of the following: harassment, threats, intimidation, stalking, physical violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, theft, public humiliation, destruction of property, or retaliation for asserting or alleging an act of bullying. This list is meant to be illustrative and non-exhaustive.
105 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/27-23.7

A person is guilty of harassment when, with intent to intimidate, harass, annoy, or alarm another person, he or she:

  • Strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise subjects him to physical contact;
  • Attempts or threatens to strike, shove, kick, or otherwise subject the person to physical contact;
  • In a public place, makes an offensively coarse utterance, gesture, or display, or addresses abusive language to any person present;
  • Follows a person in or about a public place or places;
  • Engages in a course of conduct or repeatedly commits acts which alarm or seriously annoy such other person and which serve no legitimate purpose; or
  • Being enrolled as a student in a local school district, and while on school premises, on school-sponsored transportation, or at a school-sponsored event:
  1. Damages or commits a theft of the property of another student;
  2. Substantially disrupts the operation of the school; or
  3. Creates a hostile environment by means of any gestures, written communications, oral statements, or physical acts that a reasonable person under the circumstances should know would cause another student to suffer fear of physical harm, intimidation, humiliation, or embarrassment.

Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. §525.070

“Harassment, intimidation or bullying” means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds as provided for in section 16 of P.L.2010, c.122 (C.18A:37-15.3), that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students and that: a. a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property; b. has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or c. creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student.
N. J. Stat. Ann. §18A-37-14

(1)(a)”Bullying” means intentionally or knowingly committing an act that: (i) (A) endangers the physical health or safety of a school employee or student; (B) involves any brutality of a physical nature such as whipping, beating, branding, calisthenics, bruising, electric shocking, placing of a harmful substance on the body, or exposure to the elements; (C) involves consumption of any food, liquor, drug, or other substance; (D) involves other physical activity that endangers the physical health and safety of a school employee or student; or (E) involves physically obstructing a school employee’s or student’s freedom to move; and (ii) is done for the purpose of placing a school employee or student in fear of: (A) physical harm to the school employee or student; or (B) harm to property of the school employee or student. (b) The conduct described in Subsection (1)(a) constitutes bullying, regardless of whether the person against whom the conduct is committed directed, consented to, or acquiesced in, the conduct.
Utah Code §53A-11a-102

A full listing of all definitions used in state anti-bullying laws can be found in a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Education.

What’s the Bottom Line? +

Definitions matter: They shape the way we develop and execute policies, programs, and plans. But no matter how you define bullying, the bottom line is that all behavior that is hurtful or threatening needs to stop now and be prevented in the future.

Too often, young peoples’ reports of bullying are dismissed. Do the following scenarios sound familiar?

  • A parent requests that a principal address the bullying his or her child is facing. The principal does not consider the behavior involved to be “bullying” and does not address the issue.
  • A child complains to a teacher about bullying and is told that he or she is “too sensitive” or that “that’s just kids being kids.”
  • A parent is told his or her child is bullying other children, but the parent does not see the child’s behavior as bullying and opposes the school’s discipline of the child.
  • A teacher applies a consequence to a child he or she sees as bullying but is reprimanded by the principal for incorrectly applying the discipline code.

All families, schools, and communities need to take every report of cruel or hurtful behavior seriously, and do everything possible to ensure that everyone feels safe, secure, and respected.

Learn more about what you can do to create safe environments and successfully address bullying, whatever definition you use, at:

References Used for this Page +

Arora, C.M.J. (1996). Defining bullying: Towards a clearer general understanding and more effective intervention strategies. School Psychology International, 17(4), 317-329.

boyd, d. & Marwick, A. (2011, September 21). “Bullying as True Drama.” The New York Times, A35.

Cook, C. R., Williams, K.R., Guerra, N.G., & Kim, T.E. (2010a). Variability in prevalence of bullying and victimization: A cross-national and methodological analysis. In: S.R. Jimerson, S.M. Swearer, & D.L. Espelage (Eds.). Handbook of Bullying in Schools: An International Perspective. New York: Routledge, 347-362.

Naylor, P., Cowie, H., Cossin, F., de Bettencourt, R., & Lemme, F. (2006). Teachers’ and pupils’ definitions of bullying. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(3). 553-576.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at Schools: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.

Stuart-Cassel, V., Bell, A., & Springer, J.F. (2011). Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies. U.S. Department of Education.

Temkin, D. (2008). Addressing social aggression in state anti-bullying policies. Penn GSE Perspectives in Urban Education, 5(2). Available: http://www.urbanedjournal.org/Vol.%206%20Order%20in%20Schools/Articles/Article_3_Social%20Aggression.html.