Types of bullying


​Bullying is usually described by the types of behaviours involved, so we talk about verbal, social and physical bullying.

Bullying is sometimes also labelled by where it occurs or by what type of harm is done. These words can be used alone or in combination. It can be confusing!

The most common ways that bullying is described are outlined below.


Type of behaviour—verbal, physical and social

There are 3 types of bullying behaviour:

  • Verbal bullying which includes name calling or insulting someone about their physical characteristics such as weight or height, or other attributes including race, sexuality, culture, or religion
  • Physical bullying which includes hitting or otherwise hurting someone, shoving or intimidating another person, or damaging or stealing their belongings
  • Social bullying which includes consistently excluding another person or sharing information, images or other digital content that will have a harmful effect on the other person.

The behaviours alone don't define bullying.

If any of these behaviours occur only once, or are part of a conflict between equals (no matter how inappropriate) they are not bullying. It is important to note that when a behaviour occurs online and is published, distributed or shared to a wider audience, that this may be considered bullying.

Verbal, physical and social bullying can occur in person or online, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly.

Setting—in person and online

Bullying can happen in person or online settings. When bullying occurs online, it is known as cyberbullying.

Verbal, physical and social bullying can happen in person.

Verbal and social bullying can happen online, as can threats of physical bullying.

Online settings have added complexities which can create additional concerns for students, parents and carers, and teachers. For example, cyberbullying includes the potential for content to be recorded, distributed and viewed by an audience far beyond what was intended.

Research shows that children who experience cyberbullying are often also bullied in person. This means that effectively dealing with cyberbullying may require an examination of bullying behaviour in other settings.

Means—direct and indirect

Bullying can be by direct or indirect means.

Direct bullying includes behaviours which are obvious and easily observed by others, that is, the identity of the person displaying bullying behaviours is usually known. Examples of direct bullying include pushing, kicking, name calling and excluding others from social activities.

Indirect bullying is not always immediately observable and acknowledged as bullying. Indirect bullying can be discreet and anonymous, and the person experiencing the bullying behaviour may not realise until after it has occurred. Examples of indirect bullying can include damaging another person’s social reputation, relationships and self-esteem through actions such as jokes shared with a group demeaning someone’s personal attributes, discreetly stealing personal belongings from a bag or anonymously sharing unflattering images or information online without that person’s permission.

Visibility—overt and covert

Bullying can be easy to see, called overt, or hidden from those not directly involved, known as covert.

Overt bullying involves physical actions such as punching, kicking or pushing, or observable verbal actions such as name-calling and insulting. Overt, direct, physical bullying is a common depiction of bullying (this is sometimes called 'traditional bullying').

However, overt physical bullying may not be the most common type of bullying.

Covert bullying can be challenging for people outside the interpersonal interaction to identify. It can include repeatedly using hand gestures and weird or threatening looks, whispering, excluding or turning your back on a person, restricting where a person can sit and who they can talk with.

Covert social or verbal bullying can be subtle and even sometimes denied by a person who claims they were joking or 'just having fun'.

Some bullying is both covert and indirect, such as subtle social bullying, usually intentionally hidden, and very hard for others to see. This type of bullying is often unacknowledged at school, and can include spreading rumours, threatening, blackmailing, stealing friends, breaking secrets, gossiping and criticising clothes and personalities.

Indirect covert bullying mostly inflicts harm by damaging another's social reputation, peer relationships and self-esteem, that is, through psychological harm rather than physical harm.

Harm—physical and psychological

Bullying has the potential to cause harm.

The physical harm caused by some types of bullying is well recognised.

More recently, research has confirmed that short-term and long-term psychological harm can result from bullying. This includes the harm to a person's social standing or reducing a person's willingness to socialise through bullying (particularly covert social bullying).

In fact, just the fear of bullying happening can create distress and harm. The ongoing nature of bullying can lead to the person being bullied feeling powerless and unable to stop it from happening.

The effects of bullying, particularly on the mental health and wellbeing of those involved, including bystanders, can continue even after the situation is resolved.

Sometimes the term 'psychological bullying' is used to describe making threats and creating ongoing fear, but it is more accurate to describe this type of behaviour as 'verbal or social bullying' and the impact on the person being bullied as 'psychological harm'.

Context—home, work and school

Bullying can happen anywhere. It can happen at home, at work or at school, and can occur between students, staff and parents. It can happen to anyone.

Bullying No Way focuses on bullying between students, usually called student bullying or school bullying.

Teachers who are experiencing bullying at school should contact their supervisor, health and safety representative, human resources department or union. Information related to workplace bullying is available at Australia's Fair Work Commission.​

Last updated 19 April 2024