What is School Bullying?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 3, 2014

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“Bully” and “bullying” are terms that have been thrown around a lot recently. Behaviors that some of us took for granted when we were in school, are no longer acceptable. But we also use the terms for normal teasing or conflict between children or common “drama” among teenagers.

What is School Bullying?

So what is school bullying? It is often defined by what it is not. It is not garden-variety teasing or disagreements among children and teenagers.

Most psychologists define bullying as “physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance.” The U.S. Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) has adopted a similar definition. Under this definition, bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance” and “is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” The bully can be a single individual or a group of students.

Bullying vs. Teasing

There are four distinct elements that distinguish bullying from teasing or other discord between young people: First, the behavior must be aggressive. Second, there must be a an imbalance of power. This includes both physical strength and popularity. Third, the behavior must be repeated over time or there must be a possibility the behavior will happen again.

HHS has identified three main types of bullying: verbal, social, and physical. Verbal bullying includes teasing, name-calling, taunting, threatening harm, and inappropriate sexual comments. Social bullying includes purposely excluding someone, spreading rumors, and embarrassing someone in public. Physical bullying is the easiest type to recognize. It includes hitting, kicking, spitting, pushing, and tripping. But it also includes breaking or taking someone else’s things and making mean hand or body gestures.


School bullying does not only take place at school or during school hours anymore. It regularly occurs during extracurricular activities or on the bus. And now it also occurs on the Internet and is commonly referred to as cyberbullying.

Ubiquitous technology has changed the nature of traditional schoolyard bullying. The term cyberbullying refers to bullying by sending or posting harmful material using the Internet or cell phone.

It can occur at any time and is usually carried out through text messages and instant messages, email, and through messages or images posted on social-media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Kids who are cyberbullied are often bullied in person too—technology has made it possible for that bullying to continue after the school bell rings. Cyberbullying is particularly harmful because the messages or images can be immediately disseminated to a large audience and it can happen at any time, day or night. Moreover, the texts, messages, or images can live forever as they are difficult to take down or delete.

Even when cyberbullying takes place away from school, it is likely to affect a child’s schoolwork. Studies show that kids who are cyberbullied skip school, receive poor grades, and have low self-esteem.

While state laws and school districts define bullying in different ways, most definitions are consistent with these general principles.

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