Bullying is behaviour that aims to embarrass, threaten or intimidate another person. Its distressing to everyone, but we can stop it.
Educator walking alongside student in playground

What is bullying?

Bullying is hurtful, aggressive and repeated behaviour that aims
to embarrass, threaten or intimidate another person.

It can be carried out by an individual or group towards one or more persons and is a complex social problem, which can occur in environments such as schools.

Researchers agree that there are five key features of bullying behaviour:

  1. The bully intends to inflict harm or fear upon the target.
  2. Aggression towards the target occurs repeatedly.
  3. The target doesn’t provoke bullying behaviour by using verbal
    or physical aggression.
  4. Bullying occurs in familiar social groups.
  5. The bully is more powerful (either in reality or perception) than their targets, who are usually not able to effectively resist.

What bullying isn’t

Behaviours that don’t constitute bullying include:

  • mutual arguments and disagreements (where there’s no power imbalance)
  • not liking someone or a single act of social rejection
  • one-off acts of meanness or spite
  • isolated incidents of aggression, intimidation or violence.

To effectively respond to bullying at a whole-school level, it’s important that school staff have an agreed definition that’s understood and applied consistently.

  • Types of bullying behaviour

    There are different types of bullying behaviours:


    Face-to-face (or direct) bullying may include kicking, hitting and punching, or verbal acts such as threats, name-calling and insults. Face-to-face bullying is usually more easily witnessed.


    Covert bullying is more subtle – it’s typically non-physical and occurs out of sight of others. Covert bullying includes hand gestures, threatening looks, whispering, excluding, blackmailing, spreading rumours, threatening and stealing friends. Other behaviours may include damaging social relationships, playing practical jokes, breaking secrets, gossiping, criticising clothes and personalities, abusive notes, facial expressions, and turning your back on a person.


    Cyberbullying, or online bullying, occurs via technologies such as email, social media, text messages, or instant messaging. Cyberbullying differs from offline bullying in that the perpetrators can more easily remain anonymous, content can reach a large audience and material can be difficult to remove.

    These different types of bullying can occur in combination and leave students to feel they have no safe space.

    Bullying can have serious consequences

    There are serious short-term and long term psychological and social consequences of bullying for both bullies and targets, including:

    • feeling unsafe at school
    • increased likelihood of depression and suicidal thoughts (especially students who are bullied)
    • decreased self-esteem
    • lower levels of academic achievement
    • negative attitudes towards school
    • high levels of absenteeism
    • alcohol and substance abuse.

    Witnesses of bullying can have feelings of anger, fear, guilt and sadness. Seeing repeated bullying of their peers can result in negative effects similar to the victimised children themselves.

    The long-term effects of bullying

    In a study conducted in Finland, 2,713 schoolboys aged eight years old were identified by educators and, families and the children themselves as being bullied at school. When these boys enrolled for compulsory national service 10 to 15 years’ later, they completed a required psychiatric examination. It was found that the bullied boys were more likely than those who were not bullied to have mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety; and on this basis, were three times more likely to be ineligible for admission to national service.

    Studies have shown that children who are identified as bullies at school are much more likely than others to engage in delinquent and criminal behaviours as adults.

    There are also links between bullying and suicidal ideation or suicide attempts. Cyberbullying has been found to be more strongly related to suicidal ideation compared with traditional bullying. For these reasons it is important to reduce bullying and support all affected by it - bullies, targets, and bystanders.

  • Unfortunately, bullying is common

    Here are some recent statistics:

    • approximately one in four Australian students are affected by bullying
    • approximately one in seven young people have been cyberbullied, with research suggesting this number may be increasing
    • more than three-quarters of students who were bullied online were also bullied offline
    • peers are present as onlookers in most bullying interactions and play a central role in the bullying process
    • bullying is the fourth-most common reason young people seek help from children’s help services.
    The bystander

    Many students may witness traditional bullying. They can either assist the bully or reinforce the bullying (around 26%), do nothing or be outside the situation (24%), or assist and reinforce the victim (17%). This recognition changes the way in which bullying can be seen, from a relationship dynamic just between the bully and target to a more peer dynamic and social relationship issue.

    Bullying is a significant concern for young people

    Results from Mission Australia’s 2017 Youth Survey (which surveyed 24,000 young people aged 15-19 years) reveal that issues which young people felt either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ concerned about are:

    1. coping with stress: 48.6%
    2. school or study problems: 38.3%
    3. body image: 33.3%
    4. depression: 24.6%
    5. family conflict 21.3%
    6. personal safety: 17%
    7. bullying/emotional abuse: 16.5%
    8. Suicide: 13.6%
    9. discrimination: 11.9%
    10. drugs: 7.1%
    11. alcohol: 6.2%
    12. gambling: 3.4%.

    Girls (18.4%) were more likely to name bullying as an issue of concern, compared to boys (11.7%).

    Other issues named as concerns in 2017, such as equity and discrimination (27.3%), mental health (33.7%) and LGBTI issues (7.1%) may also include aspects of bullying. Providing and promoting a range of avenues for students to discuss and seek help for the issues concerning them is an important, practical way schools can support the mental health and wellbeing of their students.

  • What causes bullying?

    There’s no simple explanation for bullying

    Bullying emerges from a complex interaction of social, personal and psychological circumstances. Bullies may feel disdain for their targets, find bullying others enjoyable, feel strong and in control when bullying others, and believe that bullying others will make them popular.

    Bullying behaviour can occur because of distrust, fear, misunderstandings and lack of knowledge or jealousy. For example, students who are seen by their peers to be ‘different’ in some way – such as having additional needs or coming from a different cultural background – are often more likely to be bullied at school.

    Underdeveloped social and emotional skills may also lead to bullying behaviour. Children and young people who have poor self-regulation and anger management skills are more likely to engage in bullying behaviour compared to those with better-developed skills.

    Common myth: bullying is just a normal part of growing up or character building

    The impact of bullying is now known to be significant on individuals and communities with the potential to have adverse effects on development and mental health and wellbeing. In addition, there are now a range of legal implications in relation to bullying and cyberbullying behaviour.

    School staff have responsibilities to keep students safe and to intervene to respond to bullying incidents which occur, some of which may have legal implications (see state and territory-specific information about laws at Lawstuff).

    Good mental health and wellbeing helps bullies and their targets

    The Bullying. No Way! resources outline the characteristics of students likely to be involved in bullying. Some of these characteristics of student who are more likely to bully others include:

    • feeling disconnected from school and dislike school
    • demonstrating good leadership skills
    • demonstrating good verbal skills and ability to talk themselves out of trouble
    • be preoccupied with their own goals and not concerned about the rights of others
    • have high self-esteem and an inflated view of themselves, especially about their social behaviour and influence
    • be less likely to consider the negative consequences of their actions on others or on their own relationships over time.

    When students are supported to develop respectful peer and adult relationships, respect and embrace diversity, and understand their own feelings and needs as well as those of others, the risk of conflict and relationship problems escalating into bullying behaviour is reduced.

    Common myth: some kids have victim written all over them

    Attitudes which blame the target are unhelpful and dismiss the needs of both the student who is targeted and the student who’s bullying. Messages that promote positive and healthy relationships and highlight the inappropriateness of bullying will enable students to raise concerns about bullying and ensure that staff become aware and can respond to stop it.

    Anyone can become the target of bullying for a multitude of reasons including being different in some way, being new to a school, when a relationship breaks up or because they pose a threat to the social status of a child or young person who has a pattern of bullying others.

    Students who are more likely to be bullied are also more likely to:

    • feel disconnected from school and not like school
    • lack quality friendships at school
    • display high levels of emotionality that indicate vulnerability and low levels of resilience
    • be less well accepted by peers, avoid conflict and be socially withdrawn
    • have low self-esteem
    • be relatively non-assertive
    • be considered to be different in some way.

    You might notice students that have some of these characteristics in your day-to-day work. Keeping a closer eye out for signs of bullying for these students, supporting participation and inclusion in the classroom and developing student resilience are a few practical ways to assist these students.

    How can students develop resilience?

    The Learning Resilience domain explores social and emotional learning skills, resilience, and how you can create an environment where students can support their own mental health.

  • Some populations are at greater risk

    Although bullying is harmful to everyone, there are some young people in certain populations who are more likely to be at risk of bullying in Australia.

    These include:

    Children and young people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities

    These students are often targets of bullying and cyberbullying because of stereotyping related to their cultural, religious, linguistic or racial background.

    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people

    A number of factors including discrimination, socio-economic disadvantage, and cultural differences contribute to higher rates of both bullying and cyberbullying for this group of young people.

    Same-gender attracted, trans and intersex children and young people

    Levels of bullying of young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex (LGBTI) are as high as 65%. Other evidence suggests that intersex young people may also experience higher levels of bullying; however more research needs to be done here.

    People with disabilities

    Children and young people with disabilities are more likely to be the targets of bullying. Recent research shows that 62% of students identified with autism spectrum disorder reported they were bullied once a week or more.

    Family background is a factor

    We also know that students who frequently bully others are more likely to come from family backgrounds with a combination of some of the following characteristics:

    • families aren’t supportive
    • families who have a history of having bullied others when they were at school
    • the child has witnessed domestic partner abuse on the part of the parent
    • the child spends less time than similar aged children under the supervision of their parents
    • the child has been maltreated by family members
    • the child has high levels of disagreement with his or her parents
    • the parents are permissive towards aggressive behaviour. 

    However, many students who frequently or persistently bully others don’t come from families with these characteristics, and their parents are surprised, disappointed and angry when they find out that their child has been involved in bullying others.

    The kind of family characteristics which make it less likely that children will bully others are those that are characterised by family harmony, non-authoritarian parenting, a reasonable level of parental supervision, parental disapproval for aggression and bullying behaviour and a high level of positive involvement between parents and their children.

    Common myth: there’s nothing the school can do – it comes from home

    Families have a significant role in influencing their children and modelling positive behaviours. However, schools also play a key role in influencing and modelling, particularly in setting expectations in the school environment. Schools can teach social and emotional skills and can promote healthy relationships which can counter negative messages from outside the school. These approaches can also be shared with families, as the school can play a role in helping parents understand the risks associated with bullying and what they can do to help prevent it.

    Students who are bullied are also more likely to come from family backgrounds in which there is family conflict and disharmony, and the family tends to be restrictive, overprotective, controlling and over-involved with their children. However, many students who are bullied don’t come from families with these characteristics. The kind of family circumstances that make it less likely that children will be bullied are those that are characterised by significant parental involvement with their children and good communication between the child and their family.

    How can schools work productively with families to tackle issues of bullying?

    The Family Partnerships domain helps educators understand how to work effectively, sensitively and confidentially with families to foster the mental health of children and young people. The Inquire module explores topics like communicating and sharing concerns with families.

  • You can play an active role in preventing bullying

    School staff have a duty of care to ensure the safety of their students, and need to be sufficiently skilled and confident in preventing and responding to bullying.

    It's beneficial staff be aware of those students most at risk of bullying, including same gender attracted, intersex and gender diverse young people, students with disabilities, people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

    Common myth: there’s no bullying at our school

    When schools don’t have processes which enable students to raise bullying or a culture where bullying behaviours appear normal, educators might think they have no bullying. Data in relation to bullying among young people would suggest that bullying occurs in school environments; therefore, schools need to be vigilant in monitoring for bullying and ensuring that people affected can speak up.

    Recognise the effects of bullying

    Much bullying behaviour occurs out of sight of adults; however, you, as a staff member, are well placed to notice behaviour changes in a student they know which may indicate the effects of bullying. These could include:

    • change in student’s demeanour, engagement or attendance
    • change in friendships which seems to leave one or more students unhappy
    • negative interactions between students
    • negative comments made about another student
    • ignoring or excluding students
    • student avoiding certain parts of the school yard, coming or leaving school late or very early
    • student seems tired or day-dreamy
    • student seems anxious, particularly around some students
    • student appears dishevelled, with torn or bloodied clothing
    • student has injuries such as bruises or cuts.

      These signs may indicate bullying. Next steps could involve:

      • asking the student, privately, if they’d like to have a conversation to let them know about your concerns
      • ask if there are any concerns they have at school or home
      • discuss your concerns with your school’s pastoral care or student wellbeing staff member to share concerns and what they’ve observed.

      In the case the student is a target of bullying, you should act quickly and follow the school’s policies and procedures relating to bullying. Ideally, these policies will include multiple intervention models, such as support groups or restorative practices.

      What should you do if you’re concerned about the mental health of a student?

      The Early Support domain can help you recognise the early signs of mental health issues, which could result from bullying. The referral process and pathways outlined in the Provide module will assist staff in knowing how to respond quickly and seek support if they require it.

      Bullying outside of the school: cyberbullying

      Students may be involved in bullying behaviours outside the school that become obvious from their behaviours at school. If outside incidents – such as cyberbullying – have an impact at the school, they need to be dealt with using the school’s policy.

      Ask “What effect is this bullying behaviour having on the students concerned and what do we need to do in response?” This might mean including families or others involved.

      Read more about cyberbullying at the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.

    • Whole-school strategies

      Whole-school strategies can help prevent bullying

      Whole-school strategies that send anti-bullying messages, teach social and emotional learning skills, and promote healthy and positive relationships across the whole school community will go a long way to preventing bullying. Lower levels of bullying and higher levels of student wellbeing are highly likely when the following circumstances are in place:

      • most students feel connected to their school
      • students have sound levels of social and emotional skills
      • there are strong school norms against bullying aggression
      • students perceive the school has clear support and disciplinary structures in place
      • students perceive that educators in the school actively care about and promote student wellbeing and student welfare, and that the environment of their school is positive, welcoming, cooperative and fair
      • the classroom educator uses effective behaviour management
      • educators promote cooperation
      • the culture of the school is positive, caring, respectful and supportive. This includes positive relationships between peers, and positive student relationships with educators.

      The relationships and social behaviour of adults in the school community can have a significant influence on students who are continuing to develop relationship skills. When you model positive, respectful and inclusive behaviours, students are more likely to act in these ways.

      In contrast, when educators use classroom management techniques that rely on dominance and submission, students who are already predisposed to bullying others may feel their behaviour is acceptable.

      Active classroom and yard supervision is crucial to catch incidents at early stages, respond to inappropriate or disrespectful language or behaviour, and to send clear messages to students about expectations. The school’s physical environment is also important in terms of the places where students feel more, or less, safe.

      Bullying in secondary schools is more likely to occur in the corridor or in the class and during competitive or aggressive activities. Anti-bullying initiatives need to take this into account when developing strategies.

      Common myth: there’s nothing the school can do to stop bullying – it’s part of human nature

      Schools are expected to prevent and respond to bullying. Treating it as normal human behaviour dismisses the impact of bullying on individuals and leaves those affected unsupported.

      Review your policies and procedures

      Reviewing your current policies and practices will help you determine what’s working and what’s not. What you learn will help develop and improve your school’s policies and procedures on bullying.

      Be You Professional Learning

      The Mentally Healthy Communities domain includes modules look at promoting a positive school culture that will encourage inclusion, respectful relationships and valuing diversity, which, in turn, may lead to awareness of the inappropriateness of bullying.

    • References

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      Byers, D.L., Caltabiano, N.J., & Caltabiano, M.L. (2011). Teachers’ attitudes toward overt and covert bullying, and perceived efficacy to intervene. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 36(11), 105-119.

      Coggan, C., Bennett, S., Hooper, R., & Dickinson, P. (2003). Association between bullying and mental health status in New Zealand adolescents. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 5(1), 16-22.

      Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Social and Emotional Learning Research Group. (2009). Social and Emotional Learning and Bullying Prevention.

      Cross, D., Shaw, T., Hearn, L., Epstein, M., Monks, H., Lester, L., & Thomas, L. 2009. Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study (ACBPS). Child Health Promotion Research Centre, Edith Cowan University, Perth.

      Bullot A., Cave, L., Fildes, J., Hall, S. and Plummer, J. 2017, Mission Australia’s 2017 Youth Survey Report, Mission Australia.

      Greene, M. B. (2000) Bullying and harassment in schools. In R. S. Moser, and C. E. Franz (Eds), Shocking violence: youth perpetrators and victims – a multidisciplinary perspective. (pp 72-101). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

      Griffin, R.S., & Gross, A.M. (2004). Childhood bullying: current empirical findings and directions for future research. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 9, 379-400.

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      Lodge, J. (2008). Working with families concerned with school based-bullying. Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse Briefing, 11, 1-9.

      Lodge, J., & Feldman, S. S. (2007). Avoidant coping as a mediator between appearance‐related victimization and self‐esteem in young Australian adolescents. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 25(4), 633-642.

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