Department program

What is bullying?

Bullying can happen at school, at home or online. It is never okay and it is not a normal part of growing up.

There is a new nationally agreed definition of bullying which all Australian schools now use:

Bullying is an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.

Bullying can happen in person or online, via various digital platforms and devices and it can be obvious (overt) or hidden (covert). Bullying behaviour is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time (for example, through sharing of digital records).

Bullying of any form or for any reason can have immediate, medium and long-term effects on those involved, including bystanders. Single incidents and conflict or fights between equals, whether in person or online, are not defined as bullying.

The 3 main features of bullying are:

  • the misuse of power in a relationship
  • it is ongoing and repeated
  • it involves behaviours that can cause harm.

Four Types of bullying behaviour

There are three four main types of bullying behaviour:

  • physical – examples include: hitting, pushing, shoving or intimidating or otherwise physically hurting another person, damaging or stealing their belongings. It includes threats of violence
  • verbal/written – examples include: name-calling or insulting someone about an attribute, quality or personal characteristic
  • social (sometimes called relational or emotional bullying) – examples include: deliberately excluding someone, spreading rumours, sharing information that will have a harmful effect on the other person and/or damaging a person’s social reputation or social acceptance
  • cyberbullying – any form of bullying behaviour that occurs online or via a mobile device. It can be verbal or written, and can include threats of violence as well as images, videos and/or audio. For more information, refer to Cyberbullying.

Specific forms of bullying:

Bullying behaviour can include specific forms:

  • racist bullying: belittling, mocking, intimidating or shaming someone because of their physical appearance, ethnic background, religious or cultural practices and/or the way they dress or talk. For more information, refer to Racist bullying.
  • homophobic and transphobic bullying: bullying on the basis of sexuality or gender expression. It can include physical violence, cyberbullying, name calling, exclusion, ‘jokes’ and/or sexual harassment. It is a common experience for young people who are same sex attracted, gender diverse or for those who may not behave according to gender stereotypes.
    Many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and gender diverse, Intersex, Queer, Asexual and questioning (LGBTIQA+) students may not feel confident or safe enough to tell anyone about being bullied, especially if they have not disclosed their sexuality or gender identity to friends, family or teachers. For more information, refer to Safe Schools.

Overt or covert bullying

Bullying can be easy to see and detect (overt) or hidden, subtle and hard to detect (covert).  This means that schools need to be alert to possible subtle signs of bullying and check in regularly with students.

  • Overt bullying involves physical actions such as punching or kicking or observable verbal actions such as name-calling and insulting.
  • Covert bullying can be very difficult for someone outside of the interaction to identify. It can include hand gestures and threatening looks, whispering, excluding or turning your back on a person, restricting where a person can sit and who they can talk with. Social bullying (spreading rumours, manipulation of relationships, excluding, isolating) is often covert bullying.

Some behaviours can appear to be bullying but are actually harassment. Harassment is language or actions that are demeaning, offensive or intimidating to a person. It can take many forms, including sexual harassment, disability harassment or racial discrimination. 

For instance, sexual harassment is unwelcome or unreciprocated conduct of a sexual nature, which could reasonably be expected to cause offence, humiliation or intimidation. For more information, refer to Student Engagement Policy.

What is not bullying?

There are also some behaviours, which, although they might be unpleasant or distressing, are not bullying:

  • mutual conflict that involves a disagreement, but not an imbalance of power. Unresolved mutual conflict can develop into bullying if one of the parties targets the other repeatedly in retaliation
  • single-episode acts of nastiness or physical aggression, or aggression directed towards many different people, is not bullying
  • social rejection or dislike is not bullying unless it involves deliberate and repeated attempts to cause distress, exclude or create dislike by others.

Participant roles

Everyone has the potential to bully others or be bullied. Individuals can take on various roles in bullying, and play different roles in different contexts.

Participant roles can include someone who:

  • engages in bullying behaviour
  • is the target of the bullying behaviour
  • assists the bullying and actively joins in
  • encourages and gives approval to the bullying; they reinforce it through verbal and non-verbal cues such as smiling, laughing or making comments and signal it is acceptable
  • sees or knows about someone being bullied but for a range of reasons is passive and does participate in the bullying or support the target
  • is an upstander. An upstander supports the student who is being bullied by getting help from a teacher, distracting the students engaged in bullying behaviour, supporting the student who is being bullied or directly intervening. These students play an important protective role for peers who are experiencing bullying, have greater empathetic skills and are often perceived by peers to be positive role models. For more information on upstanders, refer to I have your back.

A small number of students are both the target of bullying and engage in bullying behaviour. These students are particularly vulnerable and may need additional support and intervention.

It is important to remember that children and young people are still learning and practicing social skills. Everyone has the capacity to change their behaviour but being given a label can make changing much harder.

All adults, including teachers, school staff and parents, can model positive upstander behaviour and intervene if they observe bullying behaviour occurring between students. Standing by and doing nothing, or leaving students to 'sort it out' themselves, sends the message to the whole school community that the bullying behaviour is being condoned.

While any student can be a target for bullies, there are factors that make some students more vulnerable to be being bullied. These include:

  • being different in some way
  • being introverted and non-assertive
  • having depression or anxiety
  • lacking quality friendships at school
  • displaying higher levels of emotionality
  • exposure to family violence
  • having a disability
  • having a history of trauma
  • belonging to a minority group, where isolation or lack of community support is an issue.

Impact of bullying

Bullying can have a negative impact on everyone involved, including families.

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Impact on students who are bullied

Students who are bullied are more likely to:                

  • feel disconnected from school and not like school
  • have lower academic outcomes
  • miss school,  and not complete Year 12 
  • lack quality friendships at school
  • be more vulnerable and have lower levels of resilience
  • have depression, anxiety, feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • have low self-esteem
  • not be accepted by peers, be socially withdrawn and avoid conflict
  • have nightmares
  • feel wary or suspicious of others
  • have an increased risk of depression and substance abuse
  • the reasons why a person may be at risk of suicide are extremely complicated. In extreme cases, targets of bullying and students who are both targets and have engaged in bullying behaviour have a higher risk of suicide.

Impact on students who are both a target of bullying and engage in bullying behaviour

Compared to students who are targets and students who bully others, students who both bully and are targets are the most at-risk sub-group involved in bullying. They are:                

  • more likely to be social isolated and disliked by peers
  • often lonelier and less able to form positive friendships
  • feel even less connected to school than other students involved in bullying
  • more likely to demonstrate internalising behaviours (such as depression and anxiety) and externalising behaviours (such as aggression and conduct problems).

Impact on bullies

Students who frequently and persistently bully others are at a higher risk of:                

  • feeling disconnected from and disliking school
  • having adverse mental health outcomes later in life getting into fights, vandalising property and leaving school early.

For instance, a 2011 longitudinal study of 700 Victorian students found that engaging in bullying behaviour in Year 10 was associated with an increased likelihood of theft, violent behaviour and binge drinking*.                

* Hemphill, S. A.; Kotevksi, A.; Herrenkohl, T. I.; Bond, L.; Kim, M. J.; Toumbourou, J. W.; and Catalano, R. F. (2011). Longitudinal consequences of bullying perpetration and victimisation: a study of students in Victoria, Australia. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 21, 107-116           


Impact on bystanders

Students who witness bullying may:                

  • be reluctant to attend school
  • feel fearful or powerless to act and guilty for not acting
  • have increased mental health problems, including depression and anxiety
  • have increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs.

Impact on families

It is important to remember that families of students involved in bullying can also be affected. Impacts can include:                

  • feelings of worry and concern
  • feeling powerless
  • increased stress for the whole family, including siblings
  • being unsure of the best way to help their child or what advice to give their child
  • not knowing if, when or how they should approach the school.

Impact on schools

It is important that schools take a whole school approach to preventing and reducing bullying, as well as addressing specific incidents.                 

  • Bullying undermines both the classroom and school climate, and has effects on:
  • student learning, engagement and connectedness to school and their peers
  • students feelings of safety and security
  • students perceiving that teachers have little control and don't care about them
  • staff retention and satisfaction
  • parents’ confidence in the school.

For more information about school climate, see: FISO Priority: positive climate for learning