What is bullying?

Bullying is intentional and repeated negative behaviour by one or more people over time that is directed towards another person who does not feel able to defend themselves. It can be related to just about anything and can come in many forms. For example, bullying can include physical, verbal and social aggression, and it can be either face-to-face, online (cyberbullying), or covert/hidden (e.g. making faces behind someone’s back). Cyber bullying is a form of bullying that uses technology (e.g. text messages, email and social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram or YouTube), anonymously or not, to carry out the behaviour.

Bullying can take place just about anywhere, including the schoolyard, classroom, on the way to/from school, online, by phone, at home and at work; basically any environment where people interact with each other.

Bullying is quite common, with around 1 in 4 Australian secondary school students reporting they have been bullied every few months or less often in the previous year.

Why does bullying happen?

Bullying can be enacted by an individual or a group of people. Someone who bullies others may not value or feel good within themselves (has low self-esteem) or may have experienced bullying or violence themselves. They might use bullying as a way of making themselves feel more powerful or “look cool” in front of others. Bullying behaviour can also be motivated by jealousy, lack of knowledge, fear or misunderstanding. However, some people can bully others in a strategic, manipulative way to achieve a specific social goal (like spreading rumours, excluding people, etc.). In this case, the person bullying others can have a high level of social understanding, but be using this in a damaging way to hurt others.

The bystander

Someone who sees or knows about bullying is known as a bystander. A bystander plays a significant role in bullying by their action (or lack of action) when they witness bullying. If you find yourself in this position, try not to accidentally support the bully by standing by and doing nothing, laughing at the person being bullied, or by “liking” nasty photos or posts online. If you see bullying, be an ‘upstander’ and try to stop the bullying (in an assertive but not an aggressive way) and defend the person being bullied. If you do not feel comfortable taking action yourself, report it to a trusted adult and let them know you want to be kept anonymous. It can help to tell the person being bullied that you are there for them, as they may be feeling very alone.

The effects of bullying

People who have been bullied may feel alone, unsafe, afraid, stressed, ashamed and rejected. Often they will feel that there is no escape and may take measures to ‘fit in’ by changing their appearance, acting differently, and may even go so far as to hurt themselves or others.

Research shows that being bullied can have serious effects on your physical and mental health, and your performance at school and at work which can affect you even into adulthood. Severe bullying can be traumatic for young people, especially peer bullying, as peer relationships are especially important at this stage of life. Experiencing bullying can also increase the risk that someone will develop depression and anxiety in the future.

If you are concerned about bullying

It’s important to remember that bullying is not okay (i.e. it is not simply “part of growing up”) and help is always available to make things better. Seeking help is one way to help you to overcome the negative feelings that can arise from the bullying and find ways to get the bullying to stop.

Don’t be afraid to let someone know about the bullying as soon as it starts happening, especially if you feel like it is having an effect on your mental health. Not saying something can make it hard for you to handle the problem on your own and can lead to more serious mental health issues in future.

Supporting a friend

  • Ask them about their situation. Remember to be respectful and understanding. They may not necessarily feel like answering and that is okay.
  • Let them know they are not alone. It may help them to know that a lot of other young people are going through what they are.
  • Provide reassurance. Emphasise that things can get better. Remind them that they do not have to handle this on their own.
  • Make sure they are safe. Sometimes this may require you to take action and speak up, even if they don’t want you to. Speak with them if this might be the case.
  • Be prepared to seek help. Help them decide how to approach the situation. Discuss who they could talk to about the situation, such as a trusted adult. If the bullying is at school, a trusted teacher is a good place to start.
  • Look out for their mental health. Bullying can have a serious effect on someone’s mental and physical health.

If you feel like your friend is struggling because of bullying they may need professional support. Their local general practitioner (GP) or headspace centre is a good place to start. If you are going through a tough time and perhaps experiencing bullying, you can visit headspace.org.au to find your nearest centre or call headspace on 1800 650 890 or chat online at headspace.org.au.

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