Skip to main content

How is Bullying Defined?

60-second answer

Bullying is when someone aggressively uses their “power” to target another individual with repeated, unwanted words or actions. Those targeted are hurt either physically or emotionally and have a hard time stopping what is happening to them.

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


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 teen beating up a smaller classmate or one child shoving another inside a hallway locker. While these examples are still considered bullying, it's important to know that bullying behavior can be much more complex and varied than historical stereotypes.

For example, while some bullying is physical and easy to recognize, it can also be social-emotional, occurring quietly and covertly through face-to-face gossip, on a phone, or the internet, causing emotional harm. As a starting point, there are common elements 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 is aggressive, unwanted and
    • hurts or harms another person physically or emotionally,
    • those targeted by the behavior have difficulty stopping the action directed at them and struggle to defend themselves, and
  • there is a real or perceived “imbalance of power” which is used to control or harm others; and
    • the student demonstrating the bullying behavior can have more “power” in ways such as higher social status, is physically larger, has access to embarrassing information, or is emotionally intimidating, and
  • the behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated

It’s important to note that bullying issues are complex, and there are several important factors to consider when looking at behavior. Definitions of bullying might also include or address the following:

  • 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 or through technology on digital devices like phones, computers, and tablets; and in apps, texts, social media, or gaming.
  • Distinction about amount and duration: Many definitions indicate that bullying is repeated or chronic with the behavior directed at an individual over a period of time. However, the reality is that bullying can also be circumstantial, the result of a single situation, such as a social media post reaching thousands.
  • Perception of aggression: Aggressive behavior can be defined as forceful words or actions. For bullying, it is important to note not all bullying behavior will be immediately evaluated as “aggressive.” Acts such as physical fighting and name calling are easy to recognize while acts that exhibit more covert and subtle behaviors are often difficult to assess but no less aggressive in their impact on the target (e.g., manipulation of how someone is perceived, damaging someone’s reputation or status, or spreading false information).
  • Intent versus impact: Some definitions may include that behavior is considered bullying if the intent is to willfully and knowingly cause hurt or harm. However, in some instances intent can be difficult to identify and assess by those involved in the situation: the person doing the bullying, the target, the witnesses, or even adults who receive the reports of bullying. While it is important to address the intention or purpose behind the bullying behavior, it is equally important to look at the impact of the behavior on the target. Focusing on impact verses intent can be useful in situations where the person bullying indicates that, for example, “it was just a joke” or that the target “took it the wrong way.”
  • The implications for all students: It’s important to note that bullying is not just about the implications for those targeted by the behaviors, but is also about the behavior’s impact on 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, but rather a way to help understand and identify bullying. For your school’s definition, check the district’s bullying prevention policies. For a legal definition, consult your state’s law on bullying at

Posted November, 2016

How is Bullying Defined? 60 Second Response | PACERTalks About Bullying | Season 3, Episode 1

Welcome to Season 3 of PACERTalks About Bullying, our weekly video series all about bullying prevention – including informational content, interviews, and more! To kick off this season, we begin with the basics by answering in 60 seconds or less the question “How is bullying defined?”

How is Bullying Defined? 60 Second Response | PACERTalks About Bullying | Season 3, Episode 2

Students respond to the question, “How do you define bullying?”


2023 Top Winner Teens, NBPC’s Students with Solutions Contest

What Is Bullying | Mrs. McBride’s Kindness Club at Mapleshade School

2023 Top Winner Kids, NBPC’s Students with Solutions Contest

Bullying | Grade 5 Class at Empire Public School; Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

2023 Top Winner Kids, NBPC’s Students with Solutions Contest

Your Opinion Matters

We look forward to hearing from you! Please take a moment to respond and view results.