Understanding bullying

Bullying involves one or more people repeatedly and deliberately doing things to make another person upset, afraid or hurt. A person or a group of people might feel that they have more power than someone else and use hurtful words or actions to bully them. Bullying is not just ‘playing around’ – it can really affect someone’s feelings and emotions.

Bullying can take place just about anywhere, including the schoolyard, classroom, on the way to/from school, online, by phone, at home and at work – basically any place that people hang out. It can be related to just about anything and can come in many forms. For example, bullying can include physical, verbal and social aggression and it can be either face-to-face or online (cyberbullying). Cyberbullying uses electronic types of communication (e.g., text messages, email and social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram or YouTube). This type of bullying can be anonymous and posted online where it can be seen by lots of people. Unlike face to face bullying, cyberbullying can go on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so people don’t get a rest from it. Bullying can also be hidden or ‘covert’ (e.g., deliberately excluding others, sending or posting pictures, or spreading rumours about someone behind their back). This type of bullying can be much harder to see.

Unfortunately, bullying is common, with around 1 in 6 Australian school students aged 7 to 17 reporting they have been bullied at least once a week.

It’s important to remember that bullying is not okay, it is not simply ‘a normal part of growing up’, and help is always available to make things better. If you are having problems with bullying, seeking support is a good way to help you to overcome the negative effects of bullying and find ways to get the bullying to stop.

Why does bullying happen?

There are lots of reasons why someone might bully someone else. They may feel powerless themselves, have low self-esteem, and may have experienced bullying or violence. They might use bullying to feel more powerful or ‘look cool’ in front of others, so they feel better about themselves. Bullying behaviour can also happen because of jealousy, lack of knowledge, fear or misunderstanding. Sometimes people bully others because they feel threatened in their social group and are trying to feel more secure. The person bullying others can have a lot of social power within their group, but may be using this in a damaging way to hurt others.

What are the effects of bullying?

Anyone who has experienced bullying knows how upsetting it is. We may feel alone, unsafe, afraid, stressed, humiliated, angry, ashamed and rejected. Often we feel that there is no escape and may do things so we can ‘fit in’, like changing our appearance or acting differently. Sometimes we might want to hurt others, or ourselves, because of it.

Research shows that being bullied can have serious effects on a young person’s physical and mental health, and their performance at school and at work, which can continue to affect them as an adult. Experiencing bullying can also increase the risk that someone will develop depression and anxiety in the future. Bullying can be traumatic, especially when carried out by friends or peers, as these relationships are so important in a young person’s life.

What you can do about bullying

Try to remember, it’s unlikely that everyone agrees with the person bullying or is going along with them if they don’t say something to support you. They might be afraid of getting involved or could be ignoring the person bullying as a way of not joining in.

If you are being bullied face-to-face, try to follow these steps:

  • Stay calm. It can be really hard but learning not to feel or show that you are overwhelmed can help you feel better. It might also mean the bullying stops because you are not reacting to it. Try focusing on your breathing as a way to calm yourself.
  • Don’t fight back. If you fight back you can make the situation worse, get hurt or be blamed for starting the trouble.
  • Try to ignore the bullying by calmly turning and walking away. If the person doing the bullying tries to stop or block you, try to be firm and clear – if you can, look them in the eye and tell them to stop.
  • Try to avoid the person who is bullying you, or ask a friend to stay with you when they are around.
  • Tell a trusted adult what has happened straight away. This can help you to find ways to get the bullying to stop and overcome the negative feelings that can result from the bullying as soon as possible. It can also help you to prevent more serious health issues that can result from bullying in the future. 

If you are being bullied online, here are some things you can do:

  • Don’t respond to the people who are cyberbullying.
  • Talk to your parents, carer, teacher or another trusted adult about what is happening and how you can address it.
  • Talk to friends you trust to get support and advice. Let them know it is hurting or frightening you and you need their support.
  • Block the person or people from being able to contact you and change your privacy settings to protect what you post on social media.
  • If the bullying is persistent and ongoing, delete your current online account and start a new one. Only give your new details to a small list of trusted friends.
  • Report any bullying to the site where it is occurring. Sites like Facebook have a report button you can use.
  • Keep everything that is sent to you such as emails, texts, instant messages and comments on your social media accounts. Give these to someone you trust.
  • If the bullying continues and you are feeling afraid or threatened, seek help to report the bullying from your local police (Google ‘police’ along with your suburb and state for contact details) or the Children’s eSafety Commissioner. If you feel you are in immediate danger, call the police on Triple Zero (000).

Ways you can support a friend

  • Ask them about their situation. Remember to be respectful, caring and understanding. They may not feel like answering and that is okay.
  • Listen to them and let them know they are not alone. You don’t have to have all the answers but it may help them to know that a lot of other young people are going through this as well.
  • Reassure them that things will get better. Remind them that they do not have to handle this on their own.
  • Support them to seek help. Help them decide how to approach the situation. Discuss who they could talk to about the bullying, such as a trusted adult. If the bullying is at school, a trusted teacher is a good place to start.
  • Make sure they are safe. Sometimes this may mean you need to take action and speak to a trusted adult, even if they don’t want you to. Let them know what you are planning to do if this is the case – they might not be happy about this initially but in the long run they will usually understand why you did it.
  • Look out for their mental health. Bullying can have a serious effect on someone’s mental and physical health. If you feel like your friend is struggling because of bullying they may need professional support. Their general practitioner (GP), eheadspace or their local headspace centre is a good place to start.

Who is a bystander?

Someone who sees or knows about bullying is called a bystander. How a bystander responds to bullying can have a big impact on whether the bullying continues or not.

What can I do if I’m a bystander?

  • Try not to accidentally support the bullying by looking on and doing nothing, laughing at the person being bullied or by ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ hurtful photos or posts online.
  • Be an ‘upstander’ and try to step in and speak up (in an assertive but not an aggressive way).
  • Tell the person being bullied that you are there for them, as they may be feeling very alone.
  • Remind the person being bullied there is always help available.

Remember: Being an upstander can be hard because there is often a fear about what might happen if you defend the person being bullied. It’s important to think carefully about your safety before you try to stop the bullying. If you cannot safely take action yourself, report it to a trusted adult and let them know you want to remain anonymous.

This content was developed in partnership with the Telethon Kids Institute.

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last Reviewed 26 June 2017

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