For decades, bullying has been seen as an unpleasant, but harmless situation that doesn’t bear any major consequences throughout life. Despite in movies bullies usually have to face karma, reality is not so optimistic. We can define the phenomenon as a rampant public health issue that interests both children and adults, and it carries heavy consequences that might culminate even with the suicide of the victim. Nowadays, bullying is acknowledged as a social and cultural phenomenon that causes long-term physical and psychological consequences. It manifests when a person (or a group of people) constantly exploits a situation of power unbalance in his/her favor (thanks to physical power, social status and so on) to intentionally direct an aggressive behavior against another person. Bullying manifests in practice in several ways: violent actions, name-calling or other humiliations, spreading rumors, exclusion from a group. More recently, it started to be carried out also through internet, and takes the name of cyberbullying (threatening emails or messages, spreading private material).

Bullying during childhood and adolescence

Most of bullying events occur at school, and physical features and sexual orientation are the main reason for being a victim. Statistics indicate that bullies equally distribute between boys and girls (with some variation). A major difference between genders is that boys tend to bully people outside their social network, while girls tend do it against people within it. Moreover, violent bullying mainly belongs to males, while females prefer to bully through spreading rumors and slander.

Bullies are not all the same. “Alpha” bullies are popular and socially dominant, with a regular behavior; “delta” ones are less skilled and their aggressive attitude derives from behavioral issues. These distinctions are relevant when studying a strategy to fight the phenomenon. 

As already mentioned, bullying has severe psychological consequences on the victim, including anxiety, depression, self-harm behavior, psychosis and suicidality. Regarding this, it has same impact on a child/adolescent as mistreatment at home. 

Sometimes it’s not easy to understand when a child is being bullied. Usual symptoms are changes in behavior (depression, anxiety) and truancy. Clearly the issue should be tackled as soon as possible to prevent more serious consequences. To this purpose, technology helps parents: there are phone apps that work as filters on the child’s phone, to hide unwanted content (violent messages, for example); others even send notifications to parents’ phone when such content reaches the child’s mobile. 

How to prevent bullying? One of the most successful strategy is called Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, named after the researcher Dan Olweus from the University of Bergen in Norway who created it. The purpose of this program is to establish a supportive school climate, through regular surveys filled in by staff, parents and students. Several anti-bullying programs have been analyzed and it turned out that they are not sufficient to prevent the issue, even though they improve the knowledge, attitude and self-perceptions about it. When the school staff is aware of the issue, statistics reveal that bullying occurs less. This is because a teacher can communicate better with students about an unacceptable behavior.

Another successful strategy is the Finnish KiVa method, which starts from the assumption that prevention is not sufficient to eradicate the issue, but a constant surveillance has to be maintained to address a situation when arising. Thanks to this method, Finnish school reduced the phenomenon by 90%. The peculiarity of this strategy is that the main focus is not aimed at the perpetrator and the victim, but at the spectator, who indirectly reinforces the phenomenon if doesn’t intervene to stop it. Empathy and respect for others are the keywords of the method.

Bullying during adulthood

In adult age, bullying usually manifests in the workplace. Surveys conducted along the years provided different prevalence rates of bullying at work (also called mobbing). Nielsen and colleagues in 2010 found a prevalence of 14,6%, while the Workplace Bullying Institute reported that in the US the percentage is 37%. When considering incivility, defined as a frequent rude and discourteous behavior, percentages increase dramatically: between 86 and 98% of workers reported to experience incivility at work. Incivility is not considered bullying, but a predisposing condition to it. 

As for bullying during childhood and adolescence, also in adult age it leads to anxiety, depression and suicidality, and manifests with changes in the behavior, decreased productivity and creativity, higher incidents rate, absenteeism and turnover intention. 

A study conducted by Kowalski and colleagues revealed that in adult age cyberbullying occurs more frequently than face-to-face. Even though it is conceivable that the boss is the main perpetrator of the latter, it was not confirmed by the study, possibly because people feel (erroneously) that such attitude is acceptable because of the role. 

I want to highlight another finding. Despite a bigger experience in life than children and adolescents, also adults are victims of cyberbullying as well, proving that internet and technology make everyone more vulnerable.

Fighting bullying in adulthood is more difficult than at school, but governments are adapting to this, by introducing new laws to tackle the issue (against revenge porn, discrimination, and so on). New generations will also benefit from a major awareness of the phenomenon at school, where prevention will contribute to prevent it in adulthood.