The Challenges of Defining Bullying in the 21st Century

It has taken several generations, and too many tragic accounts of suffering teens, but I think it is safe to say that society has finally come around to the understanding that bullying is a problem that demands our time, attention, and response. It is now somewhat rare to hear a person proclaim that bullying is somehow a “rite of passage” or an otherwise justifiable part of adolescent life, even though that explanation was often given in years past.

Yet, even though our society has made great strides in enlightening ourselves to the potential consequences of bullying, we have struggled to clearly delineate exactly what bullying is. For example, if I call you a mean name one time but never again, is it bullying? What if I post that mean name online for others to see and share all over social media? Or if your best friend calls you that same name, and you both respond with laughter? In each of these cases, the behavior is exactly the same. But is it bullying?

Like other amorphous concepts, one might argue that bullying is easy to define because “we know it when we see it.” And many times, bullying is easy to spot. But that perspective does little to help prevent the behaviors from happening in the first place. And school administrators, legislators, and policymakers need to clearly define it in a way that is understandable to those who are experiencing it, and in a way that policies can prohibit it. Therein lies a problem: everyone’s experience with bullying is different. This is increasingly true as technology has become an additional tool of the tormenter.

Bullying vs. other harmful behavior: The importance of repetition and intent

At the Cyberbullying Research Center, we define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” This definition was informed by, and includes elements common to, longstanding definitions of traditional bullying. We’re talking about behaviors that are deliberate, occur over time, and result in (or have a likelihood of resulting in) harm.

While this definition may exclude certain specific forms of interpersonal harm directed toward one’s peers—such as accidental or isolated incidents—it does help us to distinguish bullying from other hurtful behaviors. After all, we can’t call every problem between peers “bullying.” Not only that, but the term “bullying” connotes certain things, and can require specific formal actions by schools, and therefore should only be used when appropriate.

The two elements that differentiate bullying from other hurtful behaviors most clearly are repetition and intent (and in some ways, these go hand in hand). If I accidentally bump into you in the hallway, for example, most everyone would agree that this is not bullying (even if you are seriously hurt). Similarly, if I punch you in the nose one time—never before, and never again—this too is not bullying. (It may be assault—and I most likely should be punished—but it is not bullying.) Bullying is a specific and unique form of hurtful behavior in that it creates an almost constant concern within the target that additional attacks are imminent. Without repetition, or at least an explicit threat of repetition, this does not happen.

Some have argued that it is difficult, if not impossible, to get inside a teen’s mind in order to determine intent. One way is to see what happens after a teen has been confronted about their hurtful behavior. If the behaviors continue even after being made aware that what was being done was hurtful, then it is clear that the aggressor intends to cause harm. That said, repetition by itself doesn’t automatically mean a behavior is bullying. I might do or say something to you many times but unless I am doing it with the mindset of trying to hurt you, or knowing that it is hurting you, it’s not bullying. Repetition and intent must occur together for a behavior to become bullying.

Is your teen being bullied?

Some might also argue that whether something is bullying or not is really in the eyes of the beholder. If you feel you are being bullied, then it is bullying, simple as that. But we cannot rely on subjective opinions alone. Different people are impacted differently by different experiences. Whether something is hurtful is certainly person-specific; whether it is bullying needs to be judged by some objective criteria.

If you suspect your child (or student or friend) is being bullied, online or off, here a few questions to help diagnose the situation:

  1. For how long has the behavior been going on? How frequently do mean things happen?
  2. Has the victim told the person(s) doing the behavior that it is hurtful or to stop? Would a reasonable person believe that the behaviors are hurtful?
  3. Has the victim been saying mean things back?
  4. Does the victim believe that the person(s) doing or saying the mean things is really trying to hurt their feelings?

It is important to note that just because a victim does not specifically tell the aggressor to stop doesn’t mean they aren’t being bullied. If they have, though, it makes it clearer that the one doing the bullying is deliberately trying to hurt them. Similarly, many teens almost instinctively respond to bullying by lashing out against the one doing the bullying (by saying or doing hurtful things toward them). This is never a good idea, of course, because it can make it look more like a fight or disagreement among equals rather than bullying. It can also make it difficult to prove who started it. Even so, just because a victim retaliates doesn’t mean the incident isn’t bullying. More information is necessary to determine exactly how the incident started, and to establish who did what, and when.

Bullying is an all-to-common experience for young people today. It can happen pretty much anywhere they congregate, including schoolyards and social networking sites. Parents, educators, and other adults who work with youth should maintain an open line of communication with kids so that they feel safe coming to them when they encounter trouble with their peers (online or off). Hopefully that will enable adults to intervene in a way that stops the bullying before it results in yet another tragic story.

You can find some warning signs that your teen might be involved in cyberbullying here.