What is bullying?

Bullying takes place in the context of relationships. It is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened, frightened and left out and it can happen face to face and online.

 

Bullying is both behaviour and impact; what someone does and the impact it has on the other person’s capacity to feel in control of themselves. We call this their sense of ‘agency’. Bullying takes place in the context of relationships. It is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened, frightened and left out and it can happen face to face and online.

Bullying behaviour can harm people physically or emotionally and, although the actual behaviour might not be repeated, the threat that it might can be sustained over time, typically by actions: looks, messages, confrontations, physical interventions, or the fear of these.

This behaviour can include:

  • Being called names, teased, put down or threatened face to face and/or online
  • Being hit, tripped, pushed or kicked
  • Having belongings taken or damaged
  • Being ignored, left out or having rumours spread about you (face to face and/or online)
  • Sending abusive messages, pictures or images on social media, online gaming platforms or phone
  • Behaviour which makes people feel like they are not in control of themselves or their lives
  • Being targeted because of who you are or who you are perceived to be (face to face and/or online)
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    Is intent required?

    Every bullying incident should be looked at individually. In some cases, children or young people may not be aware that their behaviour is actually bullying. They are perhaps modelling the behaviour of adults or other children and young people, not understanding that it is wrong because they have never been taught otherwise. In these circumstances, the intent to bully may not be present, but the impact and effect on the person being bullied will be no less severe because of this.

    It must be explained to the person bullying that their behaviour is unacceptable and why. Intent is difficult to prove and young people can often reframe their behaviour when challenged. It’s more important to focus on the behaviour and the impact it had, rather than trying to establish whether someone acted deliberately or not.

    Does the behaviour have to be persistent?

    The issue with persistence is that the behaviour has to take place more than once, but the impacts of bullying can be felt after a single incident.

    Bullying doesn’t need to be persistent to have an effect on the mental health and well-being of a child or young person. For those who have been bullied, the fear and anticipation of further bullying can affect their ability to be themselves and interact with others in a healthy fashion. Bullying behaviour and its potential impacts on children and young people should be addressed as they arise. It is vital to respond to the behaviour that you see and the impact this is having, rather than relying on a rigid definition.

    How persistence is viewed by one person - for example daily, weekly or monthly - may be quite different to how it’s viewed by someone else, leading to inequality and inconsistency of practice. It isn’t helpful to wait and see if a pattern or repetition emerges before taking action. Although bullying is usually persistent, a single incident can have a significant impact on some children and young people by instilling a fear that it might happen again.

    What about impact?

    Bullying can affect people in different ways and this should be taken into consideration. If you are unsure if behaviour is bullying, look at the effect it is having on the child or young person. If they are unable to respond effectively and regain their sense of self and control in the situation, adults need to intervene to help restore it. Keeping the focus on impact reduces the emphasis on issues of persistence and intent. What you do about bullying is more important than how you define it.

    We should always remember that children will tease each other, fall in and out with each other, have arguments, stop talking to each other and disagree about what they like and don’t like. This is a normal part of growing up and should be distinguished from bullying. However, in an environment where this behaviour is left unchecked, it can lead to bullying, making those being bullied feel afraid, uncomfortable and unsafe in their environment.

    All behaviour communicates feelings. Our response should focus on identifying how someone feels and helping them to cope with and respond to those feelings. Children and young people may act out of character when they are being bullied and changes in behaviour can be signals that something is wrong. We need to focus on what someone did and the impact that it had.

     
     

    Online bullying

    For children and young people, online environments are social spaces where they can hang out and meet friends. Like any other place they visit, there are benefits and risks. Adults need to be engaged with children and young people about where they go online, just as they are when they go into town or to any other ‘real’ physical place.

    But online bullying, or ‘cyberbullying’ as it is often referred to, shouldn’t be treated any differently; it’s still about behaviour and impact. The behaviour is the same but it takes place online, usually on social networking sites and online gaming platforms, and can include a person being called names, threatened or having rumours spread about them. We should address online bullying in the same way. Our responses will be more consistent and effective when we address online bullying as part of our whole anti-bullying approach, not as a separate area of work or policy.

    Labelling children and young people as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’ can be disempowering and unhelpful in supporting them to change behaviour or to recover from the impacts of bullying. Our focus should always be on the behaviour and the impact it had. This will help them to understand what they did, why it was wrong and what you expect from them instead.

    This allows you to state clearly the behaviour that needs to change and reinforce the behaviour you would like to see instead. This gives clarity, makes it easier to address negative behaviour and, importantly, rewards positive behaviour.

     
     

    When it’s not bullying

    We know that children and young people will fall out and disagree with each other as they form and build relationships. This is a normal part of growing up and most children and young people have the ability to bounce back from this type of behaviour. It is important to discuss how they feel and help them to develop resilience to manage their relationships.

    Similarly, bullying behaviour can sometimes be unsuccessful. A person can attempt to bully someone using a range of behaviours but it has no impact – in this case the person has not been bullied but the behaviour needs to be challenged appropriately and should not be ignored. For example, the use of homophobic or derogatory language, which may have no impact on the person it is aimed at, must still be challenged as the language itself is unacceptable and could impact on other people.

    On the other hand, incidents can be perceived as bullying when they are more serious and are, in fact, criminal in nature. It is important to ensure that there is a clear distinction between bullying and other potential forms of criminal offences such as hate crime, child sexual exploitation and gender-based violence. For instance, when someone is coerced or pressurised to do something sexual or is touched inappropriately, this is not bullying. This is sexual assault or abuse and a form of gender-based violence. There are laws to protect children and young people from this very serious type of behaviour.

    Similarly, hate crime is defined through the law as a crime motivated by malice or ill-will towards individuals because of their actual or perceived disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity. A hate crime can take a number of forms that are potentially a form of criminal harassment and should be treated as such. Adults and children and young people can seek appropriate advice and guidance from Police Scotland if they feel a hate crime may have taken place.