It’s time to rethink ‘bullying’

To better protect children, it's important to recognise that bullying goes beyond traditional definitions.


The broadness of the term bullying can be confusing, and that confusion can prevent caregivers from helping kids handle dangerous situations.

The latest inquiry from Flinders University has indicated that ‘bullying’ is used to describe a large swathe of behaviours.

The study asked more than 800 students aged 11-16 years about their perceptions of being bullied. The findings – published as a research paper entitled The Confounding and Problematic Nexus of Defined and Perceived Bullying – showed how those perceptions aligned with having been technically bullied to assess the prevalence of bullying and identify victims in need of support.

Based on the use of the technical criteria, the findings revealed a significant difference in the assessments between researchers and students who had been bullied.

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Bullying can be missed and under-reported

Dr Grace Skrzypiec, from the South Australian tertiary institution’s College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, explains that bullying is a broad term open to widely varying interpretations. It’s a reality that leads to cases being missed or under-reported – especially by children.

“The technical definition for a student being bullied is when another student, or a group of students, say or do nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a student is teased repeatedly in a way he or she does not like or when he or she is deliberately left out of things,” she says.

“It is not bullying when two students of about the same age, strength, or power argue or fight and it is also not bullying when a student is teased in a friendly and playful way.”

Dr Skrzypiec says there are many reasons why teachers are “not always cognizant that bullying has occurred”.

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“‘Technical’ bullying is defined as the concomitant presence of intended harm, repetition, and power imbalance between victim and aggressor,” she told EducationDaily.

But because so much of bullying is covert, Dr Skrzypiec it is hidden, and “young people involved in bullying do not tell adults about it”.

Ignoring bullying can have lifelong consequences

“Some young people do not wish to be labelled as a ‘bully’ or as a ‘victim’, so again do not disclose information about it; sometimes it is hard for someone to believe that the charming, popular, student is a bully; some victims of bullying don’t want teachers to talk about their victimisation to other staff members; teachers might interpret the behaviour as just ‘mucking around’,” she says.

“But what we term ‘technical bullying’ usually involves a degree of peer aggression, and it is this aspect which needs a finer definition to better recognise, monitor and prevent its occurrence.”

The research shows, she says, that almost half of the participants could not recognise when ‘technical’ bullying occurred.

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Read more: Antisemitic bullying is on the rise in Australian schools

“This ambiguity around the perception of bullying raises concerns, especially for students who report significant levels of harm but who do not perceive that they had been bullied,” says Dr Skrzypiec.

“These findings demonstrate the need to give further attention to the shared definition of bullying, especially for those in schools and homes who face the consequences of this form of peer aggression.

“These children may even adopt cognitive distortions, or they could blame themselves for the bullying they are subjected to and are not likely to be seeking help.”

Dr Skrzypiec says there is evidence to suggest removing the focus on the term bullying altogether would be beneficial and that it would be better to focus on reducing harmful acts of aggression between peers.

Taking steps to prevent bullying creates safer schools

“The concern is that young people continue to be bullied so we need to rethink how we identify this behaviour.  Until this happens, research to prevent it cannot advance,” she says.

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“We all know bullying cannot be eradicated overnight, and what may work in one school may not work in another. One approach teachers can take is to set up their classes to be bully adverse at the beginning of the year.”

Encouraging teachers to work with class members to identify the environment they wish to come to each day, then work with the class to determine how that can be achieved and what will happen when those agreements are broken, can make a positive difference.

“These discussions may need to be revisited occasionally, but involving students in this issue gives them ownership,” she told EducationDaily.

Not taking action against bullying can have long-term ramifications.

“Children who do not acknowledge the harm they experience from peers are learning to live with (accept) abuse and are likely to establish a pattern that extends into adulthood, putting them at risk of abuse in adulthood.”

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