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What is Bullying?

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Aug 7, 2014

Bullying is a special form of aggressive behavior. The world's leading authority on bullying, Dan Olweus, who designed the Norwegian intervention program, defines it this way: "A person is being bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons" (Olweus, 1991, 1993). What differentiates bullying from other aggressive acts is that the student who bullies intends to harm, there is more than one incident, and an imbalance of power makes it hard for the child who's being bullied to defend herself. This difference in power can be physical—the child who bullies can be older, bigger, stronger; or several children can gang up on a single child. It can also be psychological, which is harder to see but just as potent—the student who bullies can have more social status or a sharper tongue, for instance. And for the child who is victimized, oppression is always the result, according to the English criminologist David Farrington (Rigby, 2001b).

  • Physical bullying, which is the easiest to identify, includes a variety of behaviors such as hitting, kicking, shoving, and taking or destroying property. Physical bullying is more widespread among boys (Nansel et al., 2001) .
  • Verbal bullying includes name-calling, insulting, intimidating, mocking, threatening, taunting, teasing, and making racist, sexist, or sexual comments. When does teasing cross the line and turn into bullying? Not everyone agrees, but some researchers (Froschl, Sprung, and Mullin-Rindler, 1998) see both teasing and bullying as points on a continuum of intentionally hurtful behavior, different only in degree. In a study of bullying in the Midwest, Ronald Oliver, John H. Hoover, and R. J. Hazler (1994) found that students are confused about teasing: They said it was done in fun, but they also ranked it as the most frequent bullying behavior. Verbal abuse is the most common form of bullying for both sexes (Kochenderfer and Ladd, 1996; Nansel et al., 2001) .
  • Relational or psychological bullying uses relationships to control or harm another person (Crick, Casas, and Ku, 1999; Crick et al., 2001)—excluding her from the group or events, talking behind her back, spreading rumors, telling lies about her, giving her the silent treatment, and so on. According to Nicki Crick and her colleagues (Crick et al., 2001), relational bullying deprives children of the opportunity to be close to and accepted by their peers—needs that are important for their well-being and development. Girls are more likely to use, and to become the targets of, relational bullying (Crick et al., 1999; Crick and Grotpeter, 1995), but both boys and girls consider it the most hurtful type of bullying (Rigby, 2002).

Although they're hard to classify, making faces and gesturing can be bullying, too.

In recent years, two more forms of bullying have stepped into the limelight:

  • Sexual harassment reached national consciousness when Anita Hill testified in the hearings leading up to Clarence Thomas's appointment to the Supreme Court in 1991. Sexual harassment—unwanted or unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with a student's life—is about power, not sex (Craig, Pepler, and Connolly, 2003; Schwartz, 2000). It includes being the target of sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks; being called gay or lesbian; being touched, grabbed, pinched, or brushed up against in a sexual way; being flashed or mooned; being the object of sexual rumors or graffiti; being spied on while undressing or showering; having clothing pulled down or off; and being forced to kiss or do something sexual (American Association of University Women, 2001). Both boys and girls are harassed and harass others (Craig et al., 2003). Among preteens and young teens, homophobic insults to boys are the most common kind of sexual harassment (Craig et al., 2003). Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual students face an especially high risk of harassment—90 percent of those in one survey had been verbally or physically harassed in the previous year (Harris Interactive and Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 2005).
  • Cyberbullying usually takes place off school grounds, but it affects the way students feel and behave at school. Cyberbullying utilizes all of the paraphernalia of modern life—cell phones, instant messaging, videos, e-mail, chatrooms, blogging, social networking sites such as Facebook, and so on—to threaten, insult, harass, spread rumors, and impersonate others. Because it can continue 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and because perpetrators remain anonymous, invisible, unpunished, and distant from the impact of their actions, cyberbullying can be even more vicious than ordinary bullying ("What are the forms," n.d.; Willard, 2006).

The experts also categorize bullying as direct, which is when a student bullies openly, allowing the child under attack to identify her assailant (Olweus, 1993), or indirect, which is when the student doing the bullying tries to inflict harm without revealing her intention (Sullivan, Cleary, and Sullivan, 2004). Physical bullying is usually direct, but verbal and relational bullying, sexual harassment, and cyberbullying can be either direct or indirect. As children get older, they tend to use more subtle and indirect methods, such as never finding space at the lunch table for Aisha (Craig et al., 2003).

By and large, bullying is a clandestine activity. The favorite venues for harassment—playgrounds, hallways, cafeterias, locker rooms, and bathrooms (Glover, Gough, Johnson, and Cartwright, 2000)—feature few or no adults. Children who've been victimized may find ways to stay in the classroom during recess and willingly endure great physical discomfort to avoid using school bathrooms.

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