​​​Why does bullying happen?

Bullying occurs within a social context. Students integrate the values and social norms from the school and wider community social contexts as they develop their personal relationships.

Investigating aspects of the whole school and wider community help to determine why bullying happens.  Effective solutions to bullying start with identifying why it is happening.

What we know
What do students think?
Ways to think about why bullying happens

What we ​know

A student can bully another person because they:

  • don't like the person
  • find bullying fun
  • like to feel tough, strong and in control
  • think it will make them popular.

Bullying can also happen because the student gets a reaction they like. Teaching students who have been bullied some strategies, including ways to limit their reaction to bullying, can be helpful.

Bullying can arise from distrust, fear, misunderstanding, lack of knowledge or jealousy—all factors that schools can address in positive and proactive ways.

Read more about how issues related to power and social status and lack of acceptance of diversity contribute to bullying.

Bullying can also happen because the school climate inadvertently supports negative interpersonal relationships.

A positive school climate is critical for preventing bullying in the first place.   Appropriate and prompt responses to bullying can ensure a clear message that bullying is never okay and can stop it escalating.​

​​Finally, if nothing is done by the school in response to a report of bullying, this sends a message to students that bullying is acceptable.

What do​ students think?

Understanding how children and young people make sense of bullying within their peer and social groups is central to understanding their actions.​

Research has found that young people most commonly suggest the reason for bullying at school is enhancing social status within the peer group.

Social status and belonging to their peer group are increasingly important to most children and young people from the middle years of school into adolescence. In the process of forming a friendship group, bullying can be used to strengthen the group by excluding those who are not part of it.

A school's social environment can unintentionally create a rigid social hierarchy for students, which can lead to bullying. Students sometimes report that the student 'leadership' structures and roles actually promote bullying.

Research into the views of students suggests that those who bully others may appear to be popular but are not always liked.

In addition, young people identify that bullying happens to some students more often because they are considered different, odd or unusual in some way. Students also sometimes think that those who do the bullying have personal problems.

Read more about social status and power, and difference and diversity as they relate to bullying.

Ways to think about why bullying happens

Broadly speaking, there are three perspectives on why bullying happens. They are:

  • Individual perspective – views bullying as an individual, psychological and behavioural problem

  • Social-ecological perspective – views bullying as an interpersonal relationship dynamic problem and the expression of the varying status and unequal power relations between individuals and groups (social) in that context (ecology)

  • Systemic perspective – views bullying as a cultural and system-wide problem related to the power dynamics inherent in all institutions.

Each perspective views bullying in a different way and therefore identifies different underlying reasons and opportunities to respond.

Three concentric circles with the individual within the social context within the wider society

A comprehensive understanding of bullying and why it happens integrates all three perspectives.

The individual, social-ecological and systemic perspectives can all be integrated into a school's understanding and approach to countering bullying.

Being bullied can feel like a very personal experience, but these three perspectives provide broader ways of understanding it that lead to positive solutions.

Read more about the three perspectives of bullying on this site or download Perspectives on bullying (PDF, 235KB) to read more about these different views on the causes and solutions to bullying.​​​