What is the Definition of Bullying?

“Bullying” is certainly a buzz-word in today’s culture.  It’s the headline of countless news stories, the concern of parents around the world, and the reason why 1 in 6 students skip school every day.  What is bullying and how do we stop it?

History of Bullying

The word “bullying” was first coined in 1560.  It’s a middle-Dutch word that meant “friend” or “loved one”.  Today the word has morphed to mean the exact opposite.  Bullying often describes a person who is mean, heartless, and (some would say) downright evil.  You may wonder how this abstract word changed so much over time.

In 1970, a Norwegian researcher, by the name of Dan Olweus, took the word “bullying” (which meant “anything good” at the time), and verbally re-engineered it.  He used the word bullying to describe the aggression that he had observed in schoolyards.  This bold move by Olweus, known as the “Father of the Modern-Day Anti-Bullying Movement”, was successful.  Olweus re-defined the word “bullying” for generations to come.  In fact, his research laid the foundation for how we define and describe repeated aggression that often takes place between people.

The Academic Definition of Bullying

According to Olweus, there were three criteria that behavior must meet to be considered “bullying”.  This is illustrated in the infographic below.  While this definition seems simple, it fails to identify specific behaviors.  

Academic Definition of "Bullying"

The Practical Definition of Bullying

Also published in “State Laws & Policies to Address Bullying in Schools” by Limber and Small, is a practical definition of bullying.  This states that bullying can include “words, actions, gestures, and social exclusion as well as subtle indirect attacks against a victim”.  While this makes sense, we see the simple definition begin to expand.  These definitions only account for two out of the three most-recognized definitions of bullying.

The Legal Definition of Bullying

The legal definition is perhaps the most confusing, as it changes from state to state and again as new laws are passed.  It also expands the definition to include criminal behaviors such as physical assault, stealing, and vandalism/destruction of property.  The legal definition removes clear lines between behavior that causes objective harm and those that cause subjective harm. 

How Do We Define Bullying Today?

It should be noted that today “bullying” could mean anything from someone rolling their eyes at you from across the classroom, to being beaten to a bloody pulp at the bus stop, near death.  Believe or not, today “bullying” is even being used to refer to sexual assault because one of its definitions includes “coercion”.  Confusing, isn’t it? 

Bullying, an Abstract Word

Today, “bullying” is an abstract word to describe a myriad of behaviors ranging from subtle annoyances to violent acts of aggression.  No wonder it’s been nearly impossible to address and solve this problem!  Even though time has passed, it seems that advice on how to respond to this problem hasn’t changed much.  Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Does our advice make us insane?

Common Advice for Targets of Bullying

Do Anti-Bullying Programs Really Help?

In researching the status-quo approach to bullying, it seems that there is little that a victim of bullying can do to solve their social problems. Most anti-bullying programs teach students to report all incidents of bullying and hold adults accountable to thoroughly investigate and punish kids that display aggressive behavior.  These efforts make it the adult’s responsibility to solve the social problem for the child.

The Legal Anti-Bullying Approach

The modern-day anti-bullying movement, which caught fire after the Columbine massacre in 1999, has taken a legal approach to handling aggression among children.  The question is, “Has this been effective”?  The University of Texas Arlington found that it hasn’t.  A 2013 comprehensive research study showed youth are more likely to be bullied at schools with anti-bullying programs, than schools with no program at all.

A Psychological Approach to Bullying

What might happen if we looked at dominance behavior/social aggression (clearer names for what we call “bullying”) not through the eyes of an attorney, but rather through the eyes of a mental health professional?

Legal vs. Psychological Mindset to Bullying

If our goal is to raise emotionally strong children, then we must equip our kids with the social and emotional skills that empower them to face adversity, grow in resilience, and solve their own social problems.  Only then will they be prepared to navigate aggression in the real world.  

Today, research points to resilience education and social and emotional learning to be two of the most promising solutions.  Rather than a legal approach, these take a psychological approach to bullying/social aggression.

Introducing the ‘”Peace Sign Approach …