Individual Risk Factors

Individual characteristics may affect whether an individual is a bully or a victim. On the victim side, anyone may be the target of bullying behavior. Some children are picked on for physical reasons such as being overweight or physically small, having a disability, or belonging to a different race or religion. These individual risk factors, are highlighted below.17,65


While both girls and boys are involved in bullying perpetration and victimization, research has found that boys are involved in bullying at greater rates than girls.

Psychological Traits

A victim is often singled out because of his or her psychological traits more than physical traits. A typical victim is likely to be shy, sensitive or perhaps anxious or insecure.

Physical Traits

Some children are picked on for physical reasons such as being overweight or physically small, having a disability.

Grade Level

Bullying has generally been shown to be most prevalent in middle school; however, research has suggested that bullying peaks during school

transition (i.e., between elementary and middle school and between middle and high school) as youth are negotiating new peer groups and use bullying as a means to achieve social dominance.


Involvement in bullying is a cross-cultural phenomenon and transcends ethnicity. However, research has shown that students who are in the ethnic minority in a school are more likely to be bullied than students who are in the ethnic majority.

Religious Orientation

Surprisingly, while the media has reported on the connection between bullying and religious orientation (i.e., Muslims in the United States), a paucity of research on this risk factor for bullying has been conducted. In a study of 243 Hindu, Muslim, and Pakistani children in the U.K., 57% of boys and 43% of girls reported being bullied because of religious or cultural differences. Indeed, most students report being bullied because they are different from the normative group.

Socioeconomic Status

Greater disparities between socioeconomic status within a country were associated with higher levels of victimization. Other research has found that low-income status was a risk factor for aggression in male and female students. However, it is likely that the relationship between socioeconomic status and being bullied is contextually driven and varies across communities.

Poor Social Skills

Bullying has been called a “social relationship problem.” Indeed, victims, bully-victims, and some bullies display deficits in social skills.

Superior Social Skills

However, among a subset of bully perpetrators there are students who are perceived as popular and cool. For these youth, their popularity status affords them high social standing which contributes to their ability to bully and manipulate others.

Low Academic Achievement

The relationship between bullying and academic achievement is complicated. Some research has demonstrated that bully victims do poorly in school, while other research has found that the connection between being bullied and low academic achievement is more robust when there is low parental support and schooldisengagement.

Sexual Orientation

Recent media reports have drawn attention to youth who have been bullied due to their sexual orientation. Research conducted with 7,261 students (ages 13 to 21) in 2009 found that 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. This topic is discussed more at length below.

Disability Status

The research on bullying toward and by students with disabilities has yielded mixed results. Some research has found that students on the autism

spectrum are more likely to be victimized than their non-disabled peers. Other research has found that students with behavior disorders are more likely to perpetrate bullying, but the bullying behavior may be retaliatory, in response to being bullied. This topic is discussed more at length below.

Externalizing Behavior

One of the DSM-5 criteria for conduct disorder in an individual is that the individual “often bullies, threatens, or intimidates others.” Bullying is an aggressive behavior and studies have consistently found there to be an association between conduct problems and bullying. Adolescents who are bully-victims have reported the highest levels of conduct-disordered behavior.

Internalizing Symptoms

Research has found that bully-victims, victims, and bullies all experience depressive disorders. In one study, 18% of bully-victims, 13% of bullies, and 10% of victims experienced depression, which is higher than the estimated 8.3% of adolescents who are diagnosed with a depressive disorder. Other research has supported the finding that bully-victims are at the greatest risk for experiencing comorbid internalizing and externalizing problems. In a recent study depression and suicidality were predictors of both bullying and victimization.