​FAQs: How can we identify bullying?

The series FAQs: Bullying in schools answers frequently asked questions about bullying, provides useful advice to parents and students about dealing with bullying, and summarises contemporary approaches to bullying in Australian school communities.

Download the complete set of frequently asked questions (PDF, 135KB) or read individual questions here. (See the menu for the range of FAQs).

What is bullying?
Is every conflict between students bullying?
What does the 'misuse of power' mean?
How is bullying different from violence, harassment and discrimination?
Why is the definition of bullying important?
What are the different types of bullying?
What is covert bullying?
What is online bullying (cyberbullying)?
What is online aggression, and how is it different from online bullying?

What is bullying?

The national definition of bullying for Australian schools says:
Bullying is an ongoing misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that causes physical and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power over one or more persons. Bullying can happen in person or online, and it can be obvious (overt) or hidden (covert). Online bullying refers to bullying through information and communication technologies, e.g. the internet or mobile devices. Bullying of any form or for any reason can have long-term effects on those involved, including bystanders.
Single incidents and conflicts or fights between equals, whether in person or online, are not defined as bullying.
In short, bullying is an ongoing misuse of power in relationships involving a pattern of harmful verbal, physical or social behaviour.

Is every conflict between students bullying?

Not all aggressive or harmful behaviour between people is bullying. While conflicts and aggressive behaviour need to be addressed, it is important to be clear when these behaviours are not actually bullying.
The definition of bullying has three critical aspects: it is a misuse of power within relationships, it is repeated and ongoing, and it involves behaviours which can cause harm. All three aspects need to be present in order for behaviour to be called bullying.

What does the 'misuse of power' mean?

In a situation where there is a power imbalance, one person or group has a significant advantage over another, and if this power is misused, this enables them to coerce or mistreat another for their own ends. In a bullying situation this power imbalance may arise from the context (e.g. having others to back you up), from assets (e.g. access to a weapon) or from personal characteristics (e.g. being stronger, more articulate or more able to socially manipulate others).

How is bullying different from violence, harassment and discrimination?

The critical aspect that distinguishes violence, harassment and discrimination from bullying is that bullying happens within social relationships, featuring repeated and harmful behaviours that stem from a misuse of power.

Violence, harassment and discrimination can occur as part of bullying, but can​ also occur in one-off conflicts or between strangers. It is important to know the difference as the effect on the individual or group may be different and the responses to each may need to be different.

Violence is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against another person/s that results in psychological harm, injury or in some cases death. Violence may involve provoked or unprovoked acts and can be a single incident, a random act or can occur over time.

Harassment is behaviour that targets an individual or group due to their race, culture or ethnic origin; religion; physical characteristics; gender; sexual orientation; marital,​ parenting or economic status; age and/or ability or disability, and that offends, humiliates, intimidates or creates a hostile environment. Harassment may be an ongoing pattern of behaviour, or it may be a single act.

Discrimination occurs when people are treated less favourably than others because of their race, culture, or ethnic origin; religion; physical characteristics; gender; sexual orientation; marital, parenting or economic status; age and/or ability or disability. Discrimination is often ongoing and commonly involves exclusion or rejection.
Intervening early can often prevent harassment, discrimination and more serious negative behaviours from becoming part of a bullying pattern.

Why is the definition of bullying important?

A clear, comprehensive and shared definition is essential to enable schools to identify bullying, and distinguish it from other types of conflicts or violence, so that appropriate strategies and interventions can be used. Positive solutions to bullying are relationship-based, and not only focused on the behaviour of individuals.

The way that schools and the community respond to bullying, conflict, violence, harassment and discrimination will be influenced by their underlying understanding about them.

What are the different types of bullying?

The types of bullying behaviours are physical, verbal or social. Bullying can be obvious (overt) or hidden (covert). Bullying can take place in person or online.

What is covert bullying?

Covert bullying is a subtle type of non-physical bullying which usually isn't easily seen by others and is conducted out of sight of, and often unacknowledged by adults. Covert bullying behaviours mostly inflict harm by damaging another's social reputation, peer relationships and self-esteem. Covert bullying can be carried out in a range of ways (e.g. spreading rumours, conducting a malicious social exclusion campaign and/or through the use of internet or mobile phone technologies).

Covert bullying includes social exclusion and intimidation. The term ‘covert’ highlights the fact that not all bullying is physical or obvious to others. Covert bullying can have the same harmful impacts as more obvious bullying, as it can be more isolating, can go on for longer before other people become aware of it, and can be more easily denied by the other person.

What is online bullying (cyberbullying)?

Online bullying (sometimes called cyberbullying) is bullying that is carried out through information and communication technology, including the internet (e.g. on social media sites) and mobile devices. Research indicates that the majority of young people who bully online also bully others in person.

Communication technologies allow for different ways to bully others, but do not change the fact that the bullying behaviour (and not the technology itself) is the main issue. Technology can expand the opportunities for people to bully others and creates new challenges for dealing with bullying.

One action – such as a comment or an embarrassing photo – which is repeated through sharing and forwarding to others, can be bullying if the individuals involved know each other, and have ongoing contact either online or in person.

What is online aggression, and how is it different from online bullying?

Online aggression includes a number of behaviours that occur as single or untargeted acts between people who don’t know each other. For example, ‘trolling’ is intensive verbal abuse of an individual online done anonymously and by strangers. The difference between online aggression and online bullying is that bullying occurs within the context of an existing social relationship.

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