What is bullying?

Bullying consists of a specific form of violence amongst children. Although there are different definitions of the term, they all have certain clearly identifiable common factors.

In the first place, bullying is aggressive behaviour which children indulge in with the purpose of intimidating other children in school. It therefore implies the existence of harassing behaviour amongst peers which usually takes place within an educational institution.

In the second place, violent conduct constitutes bullying when it recurs over a certain length of time. Isolated violent incidents – in which no child undergoes systematic persecution – are not bullying. It should be borne in mind that, at times, tensions within a school group are expressed in ways in which children circumstantially exhibit the roles of pursuer and pursued. If such roles are transitory or the type of incident does not recur, then bullying is not present.  

Bullying is a specific kind of mistreatment, in which intimidation occurs through a variety of combined types of violence: physical, verbal, symbolic and, in particular, emotional violence.

Who participates in bullying actions?

A bullying action takes place within interpersonal relations in which there is an imbalance of power. The pursuer uses his or her power abusively and systematically against the pursued party, who becomes a victim; a role from which he or she will find it hard to escape on his or her own. A victimization circle is gradually established, in which the bully acquires greater and greater power and the bullied child feels increasingly defenceless.

In addition to the two key positions (pursuer-pursued), observers or witnesses also play a significant role within bullying dynamics. The observers are often other children, but can also be teachers, school authorities and parents, amongst others. Their attitudes and reactions in the face of a severe case of harassment are decisive; witnesses can reinforce the aggressive behaviour, evade or avoid the situation without getting involved, or abandon the role of mere observers and confront the aggressor.

Although there may be different kinds of witnesses, when the role is played by other children, the significance is different. In bullying dynamics all of the actors submit to this behaviour: the child who is the victim of the pursuit, the witness who through fear of reprisals or the desire to belong to the “leaders’” group evades or joins in the harassment, and the perpetrator. Children who commit harassment are constrained to fulfil the role of bully, a role which damages their comprehensive development.

Where does bullying take place?

Bullying usually takes place in school. In the independent expert’s report on violence against children (2006), information is organized according to the five settings in which violence occurs; namely: within the home and the family; in school and educational settings; in organizations associated with the law or the provision of care; in the workplace, and in the community.

With regard to the violence suffered by children in schools and educational settings, it specifically mentions that, “violence in schools also occurs in the form of fights and harassment amongst students. In some societies, aggressive behaviour, including fights, is perceived as a minor disciplinary problem. Harassment between peers is often linked to discrimination against pupils from poor families of ethnically marginalized groups, or with distinctive personal characteristics.

A brief analysis of the implications

The implications of social relations within schools are as important in the adaptation of children as those arising from the family context. Through their interaction with others, children build their internal world; that is, their representations of the physical and social world.

Interpersonal relations between groups of equals are vitally important to their development; it is within them that the networks and status of each group member are constituted. Bullying is, therefore, a group phenomenon whose repercussions transcend the specific situation and shapes the perception of behaviour even of those who were not involved. If children are systematically set upon, they are not only being harassed by their pursuers, but by the whole of the social environment in which they live.

Although harassment can occur for a variety of reasons, it should be pointed out that the phenomenon has a distinctly discriminatory component. In this respect, it should be recalled that the States which ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), undertook, in its Article 2, to “respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child's or his or her parent's or legal guardian's race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.” 

This CRC principle is of particular interest here, since in specific bullying situations adults (teachers, care-givers, trainers, etc.) often participate in discrimination without being aware of the violence some of the children in their charge may be suffering.

The consequences of violence in the health and welfare of children are devastating. The medium and long-term effects of bullying are many, both for the pursuer and the pursued. According to Cerezo (2008), these effects perpetuate themselves in a chain which goes from the loss of the capacity to establish stable friendly relations, all the way to the higher levels of depression – including suicide – or the desire for ‘revenge’ as a form of escape from the violence suffered. In addition, the bully suffers the consequences in direct relation with a process of maladjustment to school, and extends his or her antisocial behaviour to other areas of life.

When a bullying action is installed within an educational centre, it is not enough to talk about it and call the child a ‘bully’; it is necessary to determine the circumstances surrounding the behaviour, how and why it arose and why it occurred at that particular time. If the school does not carry out a thorough analysis of the situation, in coordination with the families involved, it is difficult to prevent the behaviour from recurring.

At times, it may seem easier to deal with a child as the cause of the problem and, for example, have him or her treated by a psychiatrist. This takes the burden off the shoulders of parents and teachers, but does not necessarily resolve the child’s situation. The different links between bullying and social, institutional and family violence should be studied in depth.

Lastly, it should be remembered that it is the children themselves who, in a number of studies and surveys, have indicated that one their most pressing needs is the resolution of violence.


  • Cerezo, R. (2008) Acoso escolar. Efectos del bullying (“School harassment. The effects of bullying”). Newsletter of the Paediatrics Society of Asturias, Cantabria, Castilla and León (Spain).

  • Lecannelier, A. (2008) Bullying, violencia escolar: ¿Qué es y cómo intervenir? (“Bullying, school violence: what it is and how to intervene”). University for Development, Chile.

  • Moreno, M., Vaca, C., Roa, J. (2006) Victimización escolar y clima socio-familiar (“School victimization and socio-family climate”). In Revista Iberoamericana de Educación(ISSN: 1681-5653) N.º 40/6 - 15 December 2006. Available at: http://www.rieoei.org/investigacion27.htm 

  • Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. Research Centre for Health Promotion, Bergen University, Norway.

  • Osorio, F. (2009). Bullying. Acoso y maltrato entre niños y adolescentes (“Bullying. Harassment and mistreatment amongst children”). In: Relaciones Journal, Nº 303, August 2009, Montevideo, Uruguay.

  • Ramírez, S., Justicia, F. (2006) El maltrato entre escolares y otras conductas-problemas para la convivencia (“Mistreatment amongst school children and other behavioural problems in coexistence”). Revista electrónica de Investigación Psicoeducativa. Nº 9 Vol. 4 (2).

  • United Nations (1989): Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  • United Nations (2006). Independent expert’s report for the United Nations study on violence against children.  A/61/299.

  • Yuste, J. (2007) El termino ¨bullying¨ y su definición (“The term ‘bullying’ and its definition”). Available at: http://conflictoescolar.wordpress.com/2007/09/09/el-termino%E2%80%9Cbullying%E2%80%9D-y-su-definicion