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Adolescent Bullying Basics

Bullying is a behavior that many of us have experienced in school or online, either as the person being bullied, the person engaging in the behavior, or as a witness. While bullying is far from new, it should not be considered a rite of passage for young people. 

Bullying is defined as aggressive behavior between school-aged youth when there is a power imbalance that is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.1 It can include many different forms of aggression:

  • Physical (e.g., pushing and shoving)
  • Verbal (e.g., teasing, threats)
  • Social (e.g., exclusion) 

Bullying can happen through direct (e.g., face-to-face) or indirect (e.g., rumor spreading) means, and can occur in a variety of places, including at school or online.2

Health and Life Impacts of Bullying

Bullying has been linked to serious negative consequences for those who are bullied, those who engage in the behavior, and even for those who witness bullying.3-5 

Young people who are both bullied and bully others are at the highest risk for negative outcomes such as:

  • increased anxiety and depression
  • increased suicidality
  • increased substance use
  • decreased academic achievement, and 
  • diminished earning potential.3

In one study, over 60 percent of youth who reported experiencing cyberbullying indicated that it significantly affected their ability to learn and feel safe at school.6

These outcomes may persist from childhood through adulthood.7 However, while media attention has often focused on the link between bullying and suicide, most youth who are bullied are not suicidal. Those who do engage in suicidal behaviors often have other risk factors, such as underlying mental health disorders, which can be exacerbated by bullying. 

Bullying Trends

Over the past 10 years, rates of bullying have significantly declined: 21 percent of youth ages 12-18 reported being bullied in the 2014-2015 school year, a decrease of 11 percentage points from the 2006-2007 school year.8-9

Still, 21 percent of youth equates to just over 5 million students being bullied in a single school year. Within that number, some groups are significantly more likely to experience bullying. In a 2015 national survey, nearly 34 percent of high school students who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual reported being bullied, compared to 19 percent of their heterosexual peers. These students also are at significantly higher risk of reported suicidal behaviors, substance use, and depression.10

Also, while the number of students who report experiencing cyberbullying (11.6 percent) continues to be lower than other forms of bullying, cyberbullying presents unique challenges, including the evolving nature of technology, the potential for anonymity, and the viral nature of online postings.3


1 Gladden, R. M., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Hamburger, M. E., & Lumpkin, C. D. (2014). Bullying surveillance among youths: Uniform definitions for public health and recommended data elements. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying-definitions-final-a.pdf
2U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2017). What Is Bullying. Retrieved March from https://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/index.html
3 The National Academic of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2016). Preventing bullying through science, policy, and practice. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/act/resources/webinars/bullying-bradshaw-flannery.pdf
4 Gini, G., & Pozzoli, T. (2009). Association between bullying and psychosomatic problems: A meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 123(3), 1059-1065.
5 Rivers, I., Poteat, V. P., Noret, N., & Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(4), 211-223.
6 Patchin, J. W. (2017). Millions of students skip school each year because of bullying. Retrieved from http://cyberbullying.org/millions-students-skip-school-year-bullying
7 Wolke, D., Copeland, W. E., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013). Impact of bullying in childhood on adult health, wealth, crime, and social outcomes. Psychological science, 24(10), 1958-1970.
8 National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (2011). Student reports of bullying and cyber-bullying: Results from the 2007 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011316.pdf
9 National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Student reports of bullying and cyber-bullying: Results from the 2015 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017015.pdf
10Kann, L., Olsen, E. O., McManus, T., Harris, W. A., Shanklin, S. L., Flint, K. H. & Zaza, S. (2016). Sexual identity, sex of sexual contacts, and health-related behaviors among students in grades 9-12 — United States and selected sites. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/ss/ss6509a1.htm



Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on March 25, 2019