What Is Bullying?

Although there is no universally agreed definition, there is some consensus, at least in the western research tradition on defining bullying. Bullying is defined as the calculated, ongoing abuse that is aimed at a less powerful target. A school violence specialist with the School of Social Work at Michigan State University, defined a bully as an individual who seeks to control, dominate and terrorize the life of another. The important parts of this definition are that bullying is repeatedbehavior, intended to harm another, and that involves a disparity of power. A disparity of power may be viewed from different angles: target cannot defend himself or herself or the aggressor is seen to have more power than his or her target. It involves a real or perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are less powerful.14,15Nevertheless, the two criteria of repetition and power imbalance are still not universally accepted. They face particular resistance in the context of cyberbullying, and with the “intent to cause harm” criterion.

Bullying is a relationship and goes beyond individual incidents which by themselves can seem petty and insignificant, but bring great pain and torment to the victims. The dynamics of violence and school playground bullying are very similar. As mentioned, it is an issue of power. The essence of bullying is not in the actions of the bully but in his or her intentions: Will they bring harm? Is there intention to control?

Bullying is distinct from general aggression because of the additional element that it involves aggression with a real or perceived imbalance of power. In order for a study on bullying to provide meaningful information, it must evaluate aggression in the context of an imbalance of power.

Bullying often involves a minimum of two people, one the perpetrator and the other the victim. A large number of people may be involved in an indirect manner as an audience. These bystanders may be other students who witness the bullying event but remain uninvolved. They are frequently afraid of becoming the next victim if they do interfere. They often feel powerless and show a loss of self-respect and self-confidence.6,28,37

It is important to know the difference between normal peer conflict and bullying. Normal peer conflict is when two students of equal status and power get into an argument or a fight, but it is more accidental, and not serious. In the bullying incident, there is an imbalance of power and the students are not friends. Ultimately, the bully is an individual who seeks to control, dominate and terrorize the life of another.25

No matter how bullying is defined, it cannot be dismissed as inconsequential. It can be a humiliating or terrifying experience and, at its worst, bullying may lead to violence. It deserves seriousattention.