Facts About Bullying

Reporters and other content creators need the facts quickly. This section pulls together fundamental information about bullying you can use to build your pieces, including:

  • Definition
  • State of the Science
  • Statistics
  • Bullying and Suicide
  • Targeted Groups (e.g., LGBT)
  • Laws

This page was last reviewed on 09-06-2013.

Definition

There is no universally accepted definition of bullying, but most agree with the core elements of this definition: intentionally aggressive, usually repeated, and power difference between the young people involved. Also, bullying is a problem among youth 18 and under.

There are three main types of bullying: verbal, social, and physical. Cyberbullying is verbal and/or social aggression carried out through technology.1

Some bullying actions can fall into criminal categories, such as harassment, hazing, or assault.

Journalists and other content creators can use this definition to determine whether an incident they are covering is actually bullying. Media pieces often mistakenly use the word “bullying” to describe events such as one-time physical fights, online arguments, or incidents between adults.  See more on related topics.

State of the Science

Bullying prevention is a growing research field that has made great strides in answering important questions. We now know much more about how complex bullying is, and how it affects youth at the time they experience it and even as adults.

Yet many questions remain. Journalists and other content creators can serve the public by representing the state of the science as transparently as possible.

What We Know
Conclusive research has shown:

  • Prevalence:2
    Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school. Many fewer have been cyberbullied. See more prevalence statistics.

    Most bullying happens in middle school. The most common types are verbal and social bullying.

    There is growing awareness of the problem of bullying, which may lead some to believe that bullying is increasing. However, studies suggest that rates of bullying may be declining. It still remains a prevalent and serious problem in today’s schools.
  • Risk Factors:3
    Young people who are perceived as different from their peers are often at risk for being bullied. See more on who is at risk.
  • Effects:
    Bullying affects all youth, including those who are bullied, those who bully others, and those who see bullying going on. Some effects may last into adulthood. See more on the effects of bullying.
  • Group Phenomenon:4
    Bullying is not usually a simple interaction between a student who bullies and a student who is bullied. Instead, it often involves groups of students who support each other in bullying other students.
  • Changing Roles:5
    There is not a single profile of a young person involved in bullying. Youth who bully can be either well connected socially or marginalized, and may be bullied by others as well. Similarly, those who are bullied sometimes bully others. Youth who both bully others and are bullied are at greatest risk for subsequent behavioral, mental health, and academic problems.
  • Disconnect Between Adults and Youth:6
    There is often a disconnect between young people’s experience of bullying and what the adults see. Also, adults often don’t know how to respond when they do recognize bullying.
  • Promising Prevention Strategies:7
    Solutions to bullying are not simple. Bullying prevention approaches that show the most promise confront the problem from many angles. They involve the entire school community—students, families, administrators, teachers, and staff such as bus drivers, nurses, cafeteria and front office staff—in creating a culture of respect. Zero tolerance and expulsion are not effective approaches.

    Bystanders who intervene on behalf of young people being bullied make a huge difference.

    Studies also have shown that adults, including parents, can help prevent bullying by keeping the lines of communication open, talking to their children about bullying, encouraging them to do what they love, modeling kindness and respect, and encouraging them to get help when they are involved in bullying or know others who need help. 

    See evidence-based programs Site exit disclaimer.

What We Don’t Yet Know
Some of the many research questions that remain:

  • The Best Way to Prevent Bullying:8
    Many prevention programs have been tested in schools with modest results. Others have failed to make a difference. Researchers are still working on solutions to this complex problem.
  • How Media Coverage Affects Bullying:
    To better understand how media coverage, social media content, entertainment media storylines, and other content about bullying affect the public, more research is needed. These types of studies can provide the concrete support needed to help guide journalists and other content creators as they navigate among the goals of interesting their audiences, getting their job done, and informing the public about bullying responsibly.

Statistics

Here are statistics from large, representative studies that journalists and other content creators can feel comfortable including in their pieces. If you find data that looks significantly different, examine it critically, or ask an expert.

For statistics related to youth suicide see the CDC.

National Statistics

  • Been Bullied

    28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying.9

    20% of U.S. students in grades 9–12 experienced bullying.10
  • Bullied Others

    Approximately 30% of young people admit to bullying others in surveys.11
  • Seen Bullying

    70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.12

    70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month and 41% witness bullying once a week or more.13

    When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time.14
  • Been Cyberbullied

    6% of students in grades 6–12 experienced cyberbullying.15

    16% of high school students (grades 9–12) were electronically bullied in the past year.16

    However, 55.2% of LGBT students experienced cyberbullying.17
  • How Often Bullied

    In one large study, about 49% of children in grades 4–12 reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month, whereas 30.8% reported bullying others during that time.

    Defining "frequent" involvement in bullying as occurring two or more times within the past month, 40.6% of students reported some type of frequent involvement in bullying, with 23.2% being the youth frequently bullied, 8.0% being the youth who frequently bullied others, and 9.4% playing both roles frequently.18
  • Types of Bullying

    The most common types of bullying are verbal and social. Physical bullying happens less often. Cyberbullying happens the least frequently.

    According to one large study, the following percentages of middle schools students had experienced these various types of bullying: name calling (44.2 %); teasing (43.3 %); spreading rumors or lies (36.3%); pushing or shoving (32.4%); hitting, slapping, or kicking (29.2%); leaving out (28.5%); threatening (27.4%); stealing belongings (27.3%); sexual comments or gestures (23.7%); e-mail or blogging (9.9%).19
  • Where Bullying Occurs

    Most bullying takes place in school, outside on school grounds, and on the school bus. Bullying also happens wherever kids gather in the community. And of course, cyberbullying occurs on cell phones and online.

    According to one large study, the following percentages of middle schools students had experienced bullying in these various places at school: classroom (29.3%); hallway or lockers (29.0%); cafeteria (23.4%); gym or PE class (19.5%); bathroom (12.2%); playground or recess (6.2%).20
  • How Often Adult Notified

    Only about 20 to 30% of students who are bullied notify adults about the bullying.21

International Statistics

In general, the U.S. has an about average amount of bullying when compared to other countries according to a World Health Organization survey. See the rates of bullying in 35 countries.

State and Local Statistics

Follow these links for state and local figures on the following topics:

Bullied on School Property, Grades 9-12 Site exit disclaimer

Cyberbullied, Grades 9-12 Site exit disclaimer

Bullying and Suicide

The relationship between bullying and suicide is complex. Many media reports oversimplify this relationship, insinuating or directly stating that bullying can cause suicide. The facts tell a different story. In particular, it is not accurate and potentially dangerous to present bullying as the “cause” or “reason” for a suicide, or to suggest that suicide is a natural response to bullying.

  • Research indicates that persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior.
  • The vast majority of young people who are bullied do not become suicidal.
  • Most young people who die by suicide have multiple risk factors.
  • Some youth, such as LGBT youth, are at increased risk for suicide attempts even when bullying is not a factor.

Read more about the possible harm of connecting bullying and suicide in what to avoid

Targeted Groups

Bullying can affect any young person, but there are characteristics and circumstances that put certain young people at higher risk. Read more about risk factors.

Special Note About LGBT Youth:22 Research shows that LGBT youth are at a heightened risk for being the target of bullying, and this is an important story angle. However, media should balance coverage with information about the many facets of bullying and the wide range of youth involved.

While recent news stories have tended to focus on making connections between anti-LGBT bullying and suicide, media should be careful not to oversimplify any correlation between the two. Being bullied does not by itself explain the additional risk for suicide.

Learn more about bullying and LGBT youth.

Laws

There is no Federal anti-bullying law. Although 49 states have anti-bullying legislation, bullying is not illegal.

In particular, when a youth dies by suicide, it is misleading to cover the story as a crime. Rather, consider covering it as a public health issue.

When bullying is also harassment, it does break Federal law.

Learn more about laws related to bullying.


1 Espelage, D.L., Rao, M.A., & Craven, R. (2013). Relevant theories for cyberbullying  research.  In Bauman, S., Walker, J., & Cross, D. (Eds). Principles of cyberbullying research: Definition, methods, and measures. NY & London: Routledge.

2 National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, School Crime Supplement Site exit disclaimer, 2008–2009.

3 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & †O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

4 Espelage, D. L., Holt, M. K., & Henkel, R. R. (2003).  Examination of peer-group contextual effects on aggression during early adolescence.  Child Development, 74, 205-220.

5 Bradshaw, C.P., O’Brennan, L. & Sawyer, A.L. (2008). Examining variation in attitudes toward aggressive retaliation and perceptions of safety among bullies, victims, and bully/victims. Professional School Counseling, 12(1), 10-21.

6 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

7 American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? an evidentiary review and recommendations. Am Psychol. 2008;63(9):852-862.

Espelage, D.L., Green, H.D., & Polanin, J. (2012).  Willingness to intervene in bullying episodes among middle school students:  Individual and peer-group influences.  Journal of Early Adolescence. Online first.

Farrington, D. P. & Ttofi, M. M. (2009). School-based programs to reduce bullying and victimization. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 6.

Boccanfuso C. & Kuhfeld M. Multiple responses, promising results: evidence-based nonpunitive alternatives to zero tolerance. Child Trends. http://www.childtrends.org/Files//Child_Trends-2011_03_01_RB_AltToZeroTolerance.pdf. Published 2011. Accessed September 2012.

Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36, 361-382.

Waasdorp, T. E., Bradshaw, C. P. & Duong, J. (2011). The link between parents' perceptions of the school and their responses to school bullying: Variation by child characteristics and the forms of victimization. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(2), 324-335.

Waasdorp, T. E., Bradshaw, C. P., & Leaf, P. J. (2012). The impact of School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) on bullying and peer rejection: A randomized controlled effectiveness trial. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 116(2), 149-156.

8 Polanin, J., Espelage, D.L., & Pigott, T.D. (2012). A meta-analysis of school-based bullying prevention programs’ effects on bystander intervention behavior and empathy attitude. School Psychology Review, 41 (1).

Ttofi M, Farrington D. Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: a systematic and meta-analytic review. J Exp Criminol. 2011;7(1):27-56.

Waasdorp, T. E., Bradshaw, C. P., & Leaf, P. J. (2012). The impact of School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) on bullying and peer rejection: A randomized controlled effectiveness trial. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 116(2), 149-156.

9 National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, School Crime Supplement Site exit disclaimer, 2008–2009

10 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 2011

11 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

12 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

13 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

14 Hawkins, D. L., Pepler, D., and Craig, W. M. (2001). Peer interventions in playground bullying.  Social Development, 10, 512-527.

15 National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, School Crime Supplement Site exit disclaimer, 2008–2009

16 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 2011.

17 Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Bartkiewicz, M. J., Boesen, M. J., & Palmer, N. A. (2012). The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

18 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

19 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

20 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

21 Bradshaw, C.P., Sawyer, A.L., & O’Brennan, L.M. (2007). Bullying and peer victimization at school: Perceptual differences between students and school staff. School Psychology Review, 36 (3), 361-382.

22 Robinson, J.P., & Espelage, D.L. (in press).  Does bullying explain LGBTQ-straight risk differentials?  Educational Researcher