New resource provides definitions and tools to help communities address bullying

Systematic data gathering across youth settings is the focus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guide.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education released a publication titled Bullying Surveillance Among Youths: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements. The extensive guide is designed as a tool to help organizations, researchers, evaluators, community groups, educators and public health officials define and gather systematic data on bullying to better inform research and prevention efforts.

Because bullying has been defined and tracked in a variety of ways, the guide provides the following definition for researchers and practitioners to use:  

Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social or educational harm.

The definition focuses on bullying that can occur within multiple contexts such as at school and school events, traveling to and from school, within a young person’s neighborhood or on the Internet. The definition features the following elements:

  • Youth refers to school-aged individuals ages 5 to 18.
  • Unwanted means that the young person who is being targeted wants the aggressive behaviors by the
    “perpetrator” to stop.
  • Aggressive behavior is the intentional use of harmful behaviors, threatened or actual, against another youth. The guide stresses that instead of attempting to assess whether the person doing the bullying intended for the victim to experience an injury as a result of the behavior, intentionality should be determined by assessing the person’s use of harmful behaviors (such as telling damaging rumors, using threats against someone or using physical aggression).
  • Has occurred multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated means that a young person has experienced multiple incidents of aggression carried out by another youth or group of young people, or that there is strong concern that a single aggressive behavior has a high likelihood of being followed by more incidents of aggression (by the same youth or group that carried out the initial act). By including the term “likely to be repeated,” the definition addresses critiques that many researchers and practitioners had expressed related to a widely-held definition that had specified that aggressive behaviors must be repeated in order to be considered bullying.
  • A power imbalance refers to the attempt by the person doing the bullying to use observed or perceived personal characteristics (such as size) or situational characteristics (such as social standing) to exert control over the targeted youth’s behavior or limit the victim’s ability to respond or stop the aggression.
  • Harm is a range of negative experiences or injuries that can occur. These can include physical cuts, bruises or pain, and psychological consequences such as feelings of distress, depression or anxiety. They can also involve social damage to reputation or relationships, as well as limits to educational opportunities through increased absenteeism, dropping out of school, having difficulty concentrating in class and poor academic performance.

The definition distinguishes peer bullying from other types of violence and aggression that young people experience, including abuse and violence perpetrated by adults against young people. Keep in mind that some adults within youth settings do carry out bullying behaviors. The definition also excludes family violence(including sibling violence) and dating violence. The authors made this distinction because of the unique contexts and dynamics involved within family and intimate partner relationships. However, keep in mind that sibling violence and dating violence can take place within any of the contexts of a young person’s life (school, youth group, family, neighborhood, etc.).

The guide also distinguishes between bullying and normal peer conflict, as well as harassment. It stresses that although bullying is often confused with harassment, “distinguishing bullying from discriminatory harassment is critical due to the need to respond effectively and appropriately to the unique characteristics and legal requirements associated with harassment.”

More information on bullying education and prevention is available through the Michigan State University Extension Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which is designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to address these issues. These efforts include the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments curriculum, which can be used within both out-of-school time youth settings and middle school settings.

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