​​​​​Impact of bullying

Bullying of any form or for any reason can have long-term negative impacts on everyone involved, including bystanders.

However, interactions and behaviours which appear similar to outsiders can have different impacts on different individuals.

Unwanted behaviours may or may not cause apparent harm to the person targeted. This depends on the personal resources (attributes) of the individual who is targeted as well as the protective capacity and support of the system (school and family) around the individual.

Schools need to respond to bullying whether or not the individual shows serious or immediate harm. Responding immediately and appropriately can stop bullying escalating or happening again.

Being bullied
Bullying others
Being a bystander
Personal resources and support systems

Being bullied

Bullying is not a harmless part of growing up. The most obvious and immediate effect is reducing students' participation, learning and enjoyment of school.

Feeling unsafe or being unable to focus on learning at school can have its own long term impacts. Staying away from school to avoid being bullied can lead to additional problems.

Other impacts include physical health complaints and fatigue, mental health impacts such as depression and anxiety, and social implications including self-doubt and reluctance to participate in group activities.

Researchers have also identified negative impacts in adults many years after being bullied. Students consider their social interactions online and in face-to-face settings to be connected rather than separate.

This applies to bullying as well. Many students who are bullied online are also bullied in person.

Just as bullying in person can cause harm, being bullied online can lead to social, psychological and educational issues.

Some research into the impacts later in life has suggested that online bullying leads to more significant negative impacts, but research asking students directly what they think at the time found the majority considered bullying in person to be more harmful.

The most significant negative impacts have been reported in students who have been subject to direct and relational forms of bullying.

Bullying can create high levels of social anxiety and a sense of loss of dignity and 'agency'. Agency is the sense of control a person has over what happens to them and their life, and their ability to make choices. Feeling powerless and unable to stop the bullying can lead to lasting harm.

Feelings of anxiety, fear and distress about being excluded and being treated with contempt can continue away from the school setting for students who experience bullying in person or online.

Many factors influence whether students consider bullying they experience to be harmful. The effects of bullying are specific to each individual. The impact may depend on the personal resources and support systems around the student.

Bullying others

The impact for students who bully others depends on whether the bullying is short-term or persists over years.

Some students engage in bullying for a short time only and then stop either because they realise it is inappropriate or the school supports them to learn more approp​riate behaviour. A small group of students continue to bully others over many years.

Students who persistently bully others have been found to have later issues in mental health and educational outcomes, as well as showing criminal and anti-social behaviour​.

These outcomes do not necessarily mean their bullying behaviour results in the later outcomes and the criminal behaviour. It is possible something else in the child's attributes, environment or experience contributes to both. However, these later outcomes suggest that persistent bullying is an important warning sign of ongoing problems.

Schools and parents/carers need to support those who bully others to learn more appropriate ways to get on with others and deal with conflict and social challenges.

Being a bystander to bullying

Students who see bullying happening can also experience negative impacts. Students can also feel distress about not knowing what to do.

Many students who are bystanders to bullying feel distress and anxiety about seeing something they consider to be wrong.

Schools need to respect students' assessment of whether or not it is safe to intervene. Students may be concerned about their own safety or potential loss of social status. They may be afraid of being bullied themselves if they say something.

Students who see bullying happening to others may also doubt whether they are generally safe at school.

Feeling unsafe can have a​ negative impact on learning and participating for all students.​  Research shows that frequent bullying and reports by students of feeling unsafe at school are closely linked.

Some researchers suggest that bystanders are key to stopping bullying, but these students are also part of the peer group and there may well be issues for them if they speak up. Students weigh up a number of factors to decide if they should intervene, including their relationship with those involved, the apparent seriousness and impact, whether they think someone else should intervene, and their opinion of the person being bullied.

Teaching students strategies for safe and supportive bystander behaviour is the most helpful way to reduce the negative impacts of fear and distress.

Schools also need to provide support to bystanders when they are responding to bullying.

Personal resources and support systems

The impact that bullying has may depend on the personal resources and support systems around the student.

Personal resources

Personal resources include a student's self-belief. Some students may dismiss what seems to others like hurtful verbal or social bullying because they are self-confident and have many other positive experiences in their lives. Other students may feel deeply distressed and personally responsible for being bullied.​

Other personal resources include strategies that students can learn to 'deflect' or protect themselves from bullying. For example, some students use a mental image of a force field or armour which bounces the verbal bullying off before it can hurt them. A range of strategies can be helpful in certain situations.

Teachers and parents/carers can support students by highlighting and fostering these personal resources. A range of strategies can be helpful in certain situations.


Support systems around a student

The support systems around a student can make an enormous difference in how harmful bullying is. A close friend, safe places to stay, other positive experiences, another friendship group to join, or students who say something supportive or positive can all reduce the impact of bullying, and can stop it happening again.

Bullying is always an unpleasant experience. It is important to support resilience in students and assist them working through these experiences, learning to trust others, and developing friendships.

A positive school climate is a critical part of the 'protective' system around an individual student.

Clear messages that bullying is not tolerated combined with consistent follow up of issues by the school are important.

Teachers, parents/carers and other adults who provide caring, respectful and positive support to students can also reduce the impact. Knowing that a report of bullying will be responded to appropriately provides students with trust and confidence they can change the situation.

Schools need to be alert to the subtlety and complexity of the personal relationships between children and young people and to look 'below the surface' of an incident. Ask students what they think.

The experience of bullying can be an opportunity for all those involved to learn more appropriate ways to relate to others and to use this experience to become more effective bystanders if they see bullying happening to others.

A number of agencies also provide support for students who want to talk to someone else.