Many parents assume that a few scuffles with other kids are par for the course during childhood, and that dealing with a bully or two builds character, especially if a son or daughter learns to stand up to the offender (with or without a punch or two being thrown in the process). These themes have driven crowd-pleasing movies such as The Karate Kid and Back to the Future, but what happens off the silver screen is another story.

In everyday life, bullying is abusive, ugly and disturbingly common, with profound and sometimes lethal consequences. Indeed, its physical and emotional impact on children is now being addressed as a serious health issue by professional organisations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Medical Association, as well as by governmental agencies.

What Is Bullying, and How Bad Is This Problem?

To be specific, bullying involves ongoing aggressive behaviour intended to cause harm or distress in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power, physical or otherwise. Bullying is literally "as old as sin" and can occur at any stage of life, but it is particularly common — and destructive — during childhood and adolescence.

Sadly but not surprisingly, the targets of bullying are often those who are poorly equipped to deal with it: the small, the weak, those who look or act a little different from the crowd, and those who have difficulty making and keeping friends. Bullying goes well beyond the usual horseplay, verbal and otherwise, of childhood and adolescence. It is essentially child abuse perpetrated by peers, and it may take a variety of forms:

  • Verbal Insults, name-calling, racial or ethnic slurs. These are experienced equally by boys and girls, and represent the most common form of bullying.
  • Physical Hitting, kicking, shoving or other direct bodily injury, as well as destruction.
  • Social Spreading gossip and rumours (often sexually related), exclusion or outright isolation. These are more common forms of bullying among girls.
  • Electronic "Cyberbullying" on the Internet or through other electronic devices such as text messaging on mobile phones.1

Approximately one in four Year 4 to Year 9 Australian students (27%) report being bullied every few weeks or more often (considered to be frequent) during the last term at school. 83% of students who bully others online, also bully others offline. 84% of students who were bullied online were also bullied offline. Students may take on different roles in different circumstances. A student who is being bullied in one context may do the bullying in another, or a student who is a bystander to bullying in one context may be bullied in another.2

Bullying is ubiquitous: It is not restricted to any particular geographic location, community setting (urban, suburban or rural), ethnic group or socioeconomic status. It is more common at school — in the classroom, hallway, playground or lunchroom — than on the way to or from school.

Unfortunately, statistics only dimly reflect the pain endured by victims of bullying. Aside from any physical injuries they might sustain, they are also more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and physical complaints such as headaches, abdominal pain and fatigue.

Needless to say, reluctance to go to school (or wherever the bullying is taking place) is a common manifestation and may result in numerous missed days of school. When a child or adolescent is experiencing frequent school absences, especially due to physical complaints for which a medical evaluation reveals no specific cause, victimisation by bullying should be considered as a possible — or likely — cause. Unfortunately, all too often a child or teen will be reluctant to report what has happened to parents or school officials — even if asked directly — because of a conviction that nothing can be done about it, lack of confidence that teachers or administrators will take effective action and (most importantly) fear of retaliation.

Even more worrisome is the connection between bullying and violence, by both the perpetrator and victim. Children and teens who bully are more likely to be involved or injured in fights, and to steal, vandalise, smoke, use alcohol, drop out of school and carry a weapon. Furthermore, those who have been repeatedly victimised may decide to seek spectacular and tragic revenge.

What can be done about bullying? Preventing, detecting and responding to bullying require involvement of parents, schools, churches and (when necessary) law enforcement.

  1. Health Resources and Services Administration, "All About Bullying," part of the organisation’s "Stop Bullying Now!" online campaign,; National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Centre, "Bullying Facts and Statistics,"

  2. Australian Government Online Resource for Teachers "Bullying No Way!"

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