Taking Bullying Seriously

Bullying is damaging and painful, potentially putting lives at risk. This form of destructive aggression has a detrimental effect on young people of all ages, including: children and teens who are bullied, children and teens who bully, and children and teens who witness bullying. Bullying can have profound and lasting effects on all concerned.

Children and Teens Who Are Bullied

Children and teens who experience bullying may respond in a variety of ways, however the effects can often be severe. They are at significant risk of developing negative behaviours as they age, and even into adulthood. Sadly, bullying can interrupt a young person’s healthy development, undermining their self-confidence and their feelings of self-worth. Researchers have discovered a connection between being bullied and a number of physical and emotional problems, including:
  • academic difficulties, school avoidance and school leaving
  • challenges forming healthy relationships and extreme social withdrawal
  • chronic physical illness and sleep disorders
  • a range of addictions, including eating disorders and substance abuse
  • acts of self-harm, aggression and violence
  • long-term depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and suicide
In an attempt to cope with a situation at school, children or teens who are bullied may skip school or alter their routes to or from school to try to avoid their tormentors, or they may lie and steal in order to comply with the demands of those bullying them.

Studies have also made the link between homophobic bullying and a range of physical and psychological problems that persist. People who both bully and are bullied appear to suffer the most serious effects.

Unfortunately, those who are bullied often find it difficult to remove the label once targeted, further compounding the problem. They may be mocked and insulted by other students when working in groups, chosen last when teams are selected, or ignored in group projects and trips. They may be involved in and blamed for fights they did not initiate. And the more they are excluded, the more insecure and isolated they can become, thus increasing the chances that they will be bullied more often and by others. This may in fact follow them throughout their childhood and adolescence and even later, in adulthood.

Young people are often afraid that the situation will get even worse if they try to get help. They often suffer from anxiety and a sense of hopelessness, believing that nothing can be done about it, even if they do share their problem. Their feelings of shame and guilt about being bullied and their inability to prevent it can make them even more secretive and withdrawn. As a result, those who are bullied can suffer even more, becoming increasingly isolated and left out as they try to hide their problem away, reinforcing the “code of silence” that allows the bullying to continue.

Children and Teens Who Witness Bullying

Although this issue is rarely addressed, bullying also has adverse effects on witnesses. These young people are often impressed or stimulated by what's happening around them and as a result, they passively observe or even support a peer who bullies. Witnesses may identify with the child or teen who bullies and blame the victim, justifying their own actions or inaction. Others feel unhappy witnessing bullying but feel powerless to stop it. Sometimes these witnesses are resigned to accept that their decision not to intervene makes them guilty of implicit failure.

A perceived or real lack of adult support and positive role modeling can lead witnesses to conclude that people who have power have the right to attack others and they are rewarded for their actions with a better social position. Some witnesses may even come to use the same antisocial behavior.

In many cases witnesses of bullying experience sadness, anxiety and anguish. These young people may have the sense that the world is simply not a safe place for anyone. This can greatly affect their ability to concentrate and learn. As adults they may continue to experience remorse and helplessness.

Studies indicate that 85% of bullying episodes are witnessed by peers. Unfortunately, 75% of the time, they watch passively, doing nothing to interrupt the bullying.

Children and Teens Who Bully

The impulse to inflict harm on others is generally a sign of social and emotional difficulties. The behaviour of children who bully others has been linked to other forms of anti-social behaviour such as:
  • School avoidance and higher drop-out rates
  • Carrying weapons and physical fighting
  • Vandalism
  • Shoplifting
  • Substance abuse
At the same time, it is important to remember that we don’t know who may be bullying others by how they look or how successful they are in other areas of their lives.

The effects of bullying others can be serious and long-lasting as those who bully others are likely to experience a range of difficulties throughout their lives.

Studies show that when peers do try and stop the bullying, their efforts are very successful.

(Note: Sources for the information provided in this summary can be found in COPA’s bullying prevention guide entitled Creating Safe Schools: A Bullying Prevention Guide for Teachers.)