What is Bullying?

By Dr. Gili Adler Nevo 

Bullying in the workplace, bullying in schools, cyber-bullying…it seems like bullying is everywhere, but do we really know what we mean when we say, “bullying?” I tried to figure this out with the help of 8th grade students.  

“Bullying is violence towards another person,” they said, but then is a fight between two hockey players considered bullying? “Bullying is when the victim feels left out, like they have nobody,” they said, but then if a group of people repeatedly don’t invite you to have lunch with them, is that bullying? “Bullying is when someone says bad things about you,” they said, but then is gossip considered bullying? 

The definition of peer victimization (i.e. bullying) is “the repeated exposure, over time, of a person to negative actions on the part of one or more people when there is a certain imbalance of power.” Bullying can be identified by three main characteristics: It’s repeated and ongoing, there’s intent to harm on the part of the bully, there is a power imbalance. 

Bullying is not about anger, or even about conflict. It’s about contempt – a powerful feeling of dislike towards someone considered worthless, inferior, or undeserving of respect. None of us are. We all deserve respect, so why is bullying so prevalent? Or in the words of one of the students, “If we all want it to stop, why does it still happen?” The answer is in the little things we do, those little things we think don’t really matter.  

Bullying is described as “the perfect storm.” Many stars need to align for a bullying situation to be created: A person who’s prone to be a bully has to interact with a person who’s prone to be a victim, in an environment that allows it. Most of us are spectators. If we think it won’t matter, if we do nothing because we’re afraid to, we don’t want to be a tattletale, we think we don’t matter, or if we laugh, just a bit, because we think it’s a bit funny, because it makes us feel good that it’s not us who are being bullied, because it makes us feel strong, we are encouraging the bullying cycle. A cycle which would have suffocated without us.  

We need to know how to differentiate what is bullying from what isn’t because we really don’t want to be tattletales, we don’t want to be too politically correct and make a big deal out of something that isn’t, but we do want bullying to stop. So the next time you hear some juicy gossip, let it go. When the popular girls don’t invite you to sit with them, find another friend who’s really worth your friendship. But when you see someone being humiliated by their boss over and over again, picked on by a group of kids or ridiculed in a public internet space, say something and support the victim. Because in an environment that allows bullying, that doesn’t show respect for other human beings, you may be next.


Dr. Gili Adler Nevo is a Staff Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Head of The PERFACT program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre & Toronto East General Hospital, as well as Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.    


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