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How is Bullying Defined?

60-second answer

Bullying is an intentional behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates a student, either physically or emotionally, and can happen while at school, in the community, or online. Those bullying often have more social or physical “power,” while those targeted have difficulty stopping the behavior. The behavior is typically repeated, though it can be a one-time incident.

Students often describe bullying as when “someone makes you feel less about who you are as a person.”

Note: Definitions vary greatly. These are not legal definitions. Find your state’s law and definition at StopBullying.gov

Article

What is bullying? At first glance, it might appear that this behavior is easy to define. A common image of bullying might be of a physically intimidating boy beating up a smaller classmate, or of one child shoving another inside a hallway locker. While that is still considered bullying, it's important to know that bullying behaviors can be much more complex and varied than historical stereotypes.

For example, while some bullying is physical and easy to recognize, bullying can also occur quietly and covertly, through gossip or on a smart phone or the internet, causing emotional damage.

As a starting point, there are elements that are included in most definitions of bullying. Although definitions vary from source to source, most agree that an act is defined as bullying when:

  • the behavior hurts, humiliates, or harms another person physically or emotionally, and
  • those targeted by the behavior have difficulty stopping the action directed at them, and struggle to defend themselves, and
  • there is also a real or perceived “imbalance of power,” which is described as when the student with the bullying behavior has more “power,” either physically, socially, or emotionally, such as a higher social status, or is physically larger or emotionally intimidating, and
  • repetitive behavior; however, bullying can occur in a single incident if that incident is either very severe or arises from a pattern of behavior

Many definitions also include:

  • The types of bullying: The behavior can be overt and direct, with physical behaviors such as fighting, hitting, or name calling, or it can be covert with emotional-social interactions, such as gossiping or leaving someone out on purpose. Bullying can also happen in person, online, or through smart phones and texts.
  • Intent on the part of the student with bullying behavior: “It is intentional, meaning the act is done willfully, knowingly, and with deliberation to hurt or harm.” But there is some controversy with this statement as some assert that not all bullying behavior is done with intent or that the individual bullying doesn’t always realize that their behavior is hurting another individual.
  • Distinction about amount and duration: Many definitions indicate that bullying is “repeated,” but the reality is that bullying can be circumstantial or chronic. It might be the result of a single situation, such as being the new student at school, or it might be behavior that has been directed at the individual for a long period of time.
  • The implications for all students: It is also important to note that bullying is not just about the implications for those targeted by the behaviors, but that the behavior can impact all students in the school, including those who witness the behavior and those that engage in the behavior.
  • Additional factors: These can include the differentiation between bullying and harassment, enumeration of protected classes, statements around the use of technology, how the behavior impacts educational performance, and the physical locations that would fall under the jurisdiction of school sanctions.

Students often describe bullying as when “someone makes you feel less about who you are as a person.”

Note: This is not a legal definition. Rather it is a way to help students understand what bullying is. For a legal definition, consult your state’s law on bullying. You can find your state’s law at StopBullying.gov.

Posted November, 2016

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