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The 6 main causes of bullying and what to do about it

From 2016 to 2019, some research indicates that school bullying increased 35%. Others have noted that bullying is “definitely on the rise,” and while we’ll explore a series of causes of bullying throughout this piece, it’s important to also think of the contextual time we live in. Many people do interact on social platforms, and there’s a degree of anonymity therein -- even if you use your real name, it’s possible that you’re talking to someone you’ve never met in real life. Real-life interactions are obviously substantially different than online interactions, and this can result in cyberbullying. 

And while we don’t want to get deeply political here, as it’s a dividing line for many these days, the fact is that the USA President from 2016-2020 was a bit of an online bully, and his removal from Facebook and Twitter by the end of his Presidency somewhat underscore that. There’s actually research about how Trump’s election made men more aggressive, including this snippet:

Over a series lab experiments, conducted before and after Election Day, they observed a striking result: Post-election, study participants were less cooperative, more likely to use adversarial strategies and less likely to reach an agreement with a partner. The effect was driven by an increase in men acting more aggressively toward women.

Perhaps to some, bullying became a badge of honor or cool thing to do, and that’s another cause of the rise in bullying? It’s worth at least considering. 

In this article, we will run through the causes of bullying, some of the effects of bullying, cyberbullying, and what to do about bullying. 

Table of contents

What are the main causes of bullying?

The main causes of bullying are varied, but there are some bigger buckets that bullies tend to fall into:

  1. Bullied themselves: Someone who bullies others might have experienced bullying -- maybe by their parents, their abusing step-siblings, or even from someone in their neighborhood. Bullies often lack empathy as a result of their perception of what’s happened to them, and they want to pay that negativity forward.
  2. Seeking social attention via loneliness: Bullies are often lonely. They don’t have any real friends. So they try to find attention in any way they can, even if that means hampering someone’s mental health or causing them physical health problems.
  3. Frustration or envy: Bullies may bully people who are doing better than them at something, be it grades or athletic accomplishments or promotions at work. The bullies look to undermine the other person’s skills with acts of aggression only to level the playing field. Bullies often lack psychological well-being, so there’s a lot of comparison being done in their heads, and that leads to frustration and envy.
  4. Shame: This occurs when the person bullying is ashamed by their low intellect or lack of ability to succeed in whatever they try. They get frustrated by their failure and resultantly take it out on the other person with acts of aggression. Bullies often lack personal integrity, as well.
  5. The decline of disagreement: This is a trickier one. Oftentimes in online discourse, a simple disagreement may be flagged by one person as “hate,” as opposed to an opportunity for future learning and discussion. When “hate” can be virtually anything, the term bully can be misappropriated to mean simply “someone you don’t like the views of,” as opposed to an actual, true bully. The confusion around semantics is a cause for the perceived rise of bullying, as well. 
  6. Gender norms: Males are more likely to have bullied another person. While it is common for us to encourage females to talk about their problems and accept visual emotions, the opposite is usually true for males. Without the outlet of healthy communication and displays of emotion, males can revert to aggressive behavior. 

Who is at risk for bullying?

Theoretically, anyone is at risk for bullying, especially in a digitally-connected world. Boston Children’s Hospital has noted some population groups that might be at higher risk for bullying, however:

  • having physical features that are different from peers e.g. being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or braces, having a physical disability, being from a different racial group, wearing clothes kids consider to be ‘uncool’.
  • having a cognitive disability
  • identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender
  • being seen as annoying
  • being seen as weak or defenseless and unlikely to fight back.
  • perceived as socially awkward and having few friends

The same hospital has a potential set of warning signs to see if your child or someone in your orbit is being bullied, which includes:

  • He is reluctant to go to school or outright refuses to go.
  • She frequently reports headaches, stomach aches or feeling sick, but there appears to be no underlying medical reason.
  • He has trouble sleeping and frequent nightmares.
  • She shows little interest in hanging out with friends and avoids social situations.
  • He comes home with unexplained injuries.
  • She appears to have low self-esteem, shuts herself in her room, seems irritable.
  • He reports that books electronics or other belongings are lost or destroyed.
  • She eats less, sometimes skips breakfast or dinner, or binge eats.
  • His grades are declining, he seems uninterested in school.

What are the effects of bullying?

On the victims of bullying, being bullied can increase anxiety, depression, loneliness, and lead to eating disorders and substance abuse. In some cases, it can reach self-harm or suicidal ideation. There’s actually, and quite sadly, a TV show called Web of Lies about people who have been cyber-bullied, and in some examples and cases -- such as Jessica Logan or Tyler Clementi -- it has led to suicide. Being bullied can have very serious effects.

For the bully, there can obviously be punishments and potential work terminations. What’s paradoxical here is that oftentimes, when a bully is punished, they won’t necessarily have the self-awareness to realize it’s time to change. Rather, they will get more mad at “the system” and “the world” (loose constructs) and very likely will continue to bully others, perhaps in a more severe form. 

There are also bystander effects to bullying. If an organization or school does nothing about obvious bullying, others will begin to respect the organization less, or assume they can get away with bad behavior too. Now, on the flip side, if a school or organization punishes everything, even basic discourse, as potential bullying, then you create a culture where people are terrified to speak up or do anything real -- and that paralyzing culture has negative effects as well. If you worked at a place where you felt you couldn’t disagree with a co-worker without potentially being labeled a bully and punished in some way, would you feel comfortable with any tough conversation? Probably not. That has massive implications for retention.

The long-term effects of bullying, as described and data-assigned in this Dieter Wolke paper, are vast.

What are the main causes of cyberbullying?

Many of the same causes of bullying in general, but cyberbullying is a bit different largely because cyberbullies often think they won’t get caught behind a vast Internet of anonymized usage. In reality, most cyberbullies do in fact get caught, but the perception is different as opposed to in-real-life bullying. There’s also a much bigger context around revenge in cyberbullying, which you see with revenge porn -- which has become a very litigated space in the last 10 years. Remember: as discussed above, bullies are often retaliating for pain they’ve experienced. That’s essentially what “revenge” is. It’s very common online. 

What are the causes of bullying in professional settings?

We tend to associate the term “bullying” with youth, and at work, we tend to call the same behavior “harassment,” but they’re often similar in how they look and feel to those involved. Usually professional bullying has several causes, including:

  • An unchecked culture where certain people, perhaps because of how much they sell, can seemingly do whatever they want.
  • Lack of process and rules.
  • Lack of HR, compliance, and legal teams.
  • Some functional areas (silos) being downplayed at the expense of others that produce more, thus allowing people in the productive silos to bully those in the less-productive ones.
  • An over-focus on competition within the organization.
  • An over-focus on power and status that causes some to seek it out, often by bullying others to appear stronger.

These are some of the causes of bullying you see in professional work. It’s all very serious, and in a functional organization with rules and a solid culture, it can lead to terminations.

How should you deal with a bully?

This varies by age and context, but some of the best approaches include:

  • Stand up for yourself.
  • Go to someone in authority and explain what’s happening.
  • Document everything you see or experience.
  • Consider leaving the organization.

All of these approaches have pros and cons -- if you stand up for yourself, you can get in trouble or get into fights you can’t win. If you go to someone in authority, it can make you appear weaker to the bully, but it can stop the bullying for a period of time. If you leave a professional setting because of bullying or harassment, it can seem like you ran away, letting the bully win -- but ultimately it might be a lot better for your mental and physical health. It depends on what you need in that specific situation. There’s no single answer. 

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