Children who bully at school

CFCA Paper No. 27 – July 2014

Understanding school bullying

School bullying is a serious problem in many countries. Bullying is observed across gender, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. It is prevalent in all grades and all schools - and can be mild, moderate or severe (Smith et al., 1999).

Bullying is now widely considered as a systematic abuse of power (Rigby, 2002); that is, the intention of bullying is to put the victim in distress in some way. Bullies seek power. While definitions in the literature vary, especially with new forms of bullying being identified, the majority of definitions include all or most of the following elements:

  • aggression;
  • intentional hurtfulness;
  • abuse of power (asymmetric conflict); and
  • repetition.

Importantly, bullying is distinct from interpersonal conflicts or "rough play". While disagreement, teasing and conflict are part of growing up, bullying is an extreme form of peer conflict or teasing and can be harmful, both physically and psychologically (Rigby, 2002).

Examples of school bullying include:

  • physical fighting;
  • name calling;
  • social exclusion;
  • spreading rumours and gossip; or
  • distributing hurtful or embarrassing messages or pictures.

It can take place in face-to-face encounters, through written words (e.g., notes), or through digital media such as text messages, social media, and websites (i.e., cyberbullying; see Box 1).

Box 1: Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying involves using technology such as mobile phones and the Internet to bully or harass another person. In Australia, 10-20% of children and young people have been cyberbullied (Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, 2011).

Cyberbullying can take many forms:

  • Sending mean messages or threats to a person's email account or mobile phone
  • Spreading rumors online or through texts
  • Posting hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites or web pages
  • Stealing a person's account information to break into their account and send damaging messages
  • Pretending to be someone else online to hurt another person
  • Taking unflattering pictures of a person and spreading them through mobile phones or the Internet
  • Sexting, or circulating sexually suggestive pictures or messages about a person

For more information, see Robinson (2012).


Did you know?

  • The Internet and mobile phone are fast becoming one of the key tools in bullying behaviour.
  • Parents can be held responsible for phone or computer bullying, which can include facing legal actions or losing their phone or Internet accounts.

How common is bullying?

A survey of schools in about 40 countries found that Australian primary schools were among those with the highest reported incidence of bullying in the world (Mullis, Martin, & Foy, 2008).

Bullying has been the focus of considerable international research and policy development (Smith et al., 1999). Estimates of the prevalence of bullying vary enormously and are dependent on how bullying is assessed and who reports it. For example, teachers and parents frequently report fewer incidents of bullying behaviours than do children and young people themselves (Lodge & Baxter, 2014). In Australia, reasonable estimates can be obtained from questionnaire data. In one large national study, approximately 1 in 6 school students (between the ages of 7 and 17) reported being bullied at least once a week - with more reports by primary-school children than secondary-school students (Rigby, 1997).

The Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study reported that 1 in 4 students (in a sample of 20,832 Australian students aged between 8 and 14 years) reported being bullied every few weeks or more, with the highest prevalence rates being reported by children in Year 5 (age 10-11 years) (Cross et al., 2009).

Data drawn from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children found that almost 1 in 3 students aged 10-11 years reported being bullied or picked on by peers, with name calling being far more common than physical bullying (Lodge & Baxter, 2013).

For children who bully others, the prevalence in child and adolescent samples is typically around 5-15% (Craig & Harel, 2004; Kärnä, Voeten, Paskiparta, & Salmivalli, 2010; Pellegrini, Bartini, & Brooks, 1999).

What do we know about bullies?

A significant number of young people who bully others have been bullied themselves (Solberg & Olweus, 2003).

Researchers suggest that children who bully are self-focused, highly competitive, exhibitionistic and aggressive (Salmivalli, Kaukiainen, Kaistaniemi, & Lagerspetz, 1999). Others propose that children who bully lack empathy and tend to be manipulative and self-seeking in their interpersonal relationships (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996).

While some conceptualise bullying as a continuum of behaviours (Bosworth, Espelage, & Simon, 1999), others (Salmivalli et al., 1996) suggest that children who bully can be grouped by their level of involvement:

  • ringleaders - organising a group of bullies and initiating the bullying;
  • followers - who join in the bullying once it is started; and
  • reinforcers - who do not actively join in, but reinforce more passively by watching and laughing or encouraging the bullying.

However, in terms of the child who bullies, the literature commonly distinguishes between pure bullies and bully victims (those children who both bully and are victims of bullying) (Wolke, Woods, Stanford, & Schulz, 2001). A number of studies have examined these two groups, and have found several important differences.

The pure bully:

  • appears motivated by a strong personal desire to control others and may feel empowered to bully when peer bystanders appear to support their behaviour;
  • doesn't appear to care about fairness or another person's feelings; and
  • has usually experienced abuse or neglect (Rigby, 2011).

The bully victim:

  • might experience depression, anger, anxiety and/or impulsivity (Haynie et al., 2001; Holt & Espelage, 2007; Swearer et al., 2001);
  • shows more negative affect and poorer self-regulation than bullies (Haynie et al., 2001; Toblin et al., 2005);
  • engages in more illegal or problematic behaviours (e.g., carrying a weapon, using alcohol, using illegal drugs, fighting, lying to parents, staying out past curfew) than pure bullies (Haynie et al., 2001; Stein et al., 2007);
  • shows lower levels of remorse when committing antisocial acts than pure bullies (Fanti et al., 2009);
  • may show more deficits in problem solving, engage in external blaming, and endorse more aggressive actions (see Box 2; O'Brennan, Bradshaw, & Sawyer, 2009; Cassidy & Taylor, 2005; Haynie et al., 2001); and
  • demonstrates attitudes supportive of retaliatory behaviour (O'Brennan et al., 2009).

Box 2: Bully victims and social knowledge

A deficit in interpreting social cues is one factor suggested as being related to the tendency of bully victims to attribute blame to others (Camodeca, Goosens, Schuengel, & Terwogt, 2003); that is, bully victims are more likely to respond with blame, anger and retaliation in ambiguous social interactions when the intent of the perpetrator is unknown. These children may not consider the possibility that the perpetrator had no harmful intent (Camodeca et al., 2003).


Did you know?

  • Bully victims are at increased risk for a number of problem outcomes (Haynie et al., 2001; Swearer et al., 2001).
  • Bully victims are more inclined to associate with deviant peers who share similar antisocial attitudes and who engage in criminal behaviour (Haynie et al., 2001; Menesini et al., 2009).