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What is bullying (child-on-child abuse)?

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Bullying is behaviour by an individual or group, repeated over time, that intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally.

What are the signs and indicators of bullying?


There are several different forms of bullying as outlined in Keeping Children Safe in Education

General signs of when a pupil is being bullied include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Unexplained injuries, e.g. bruises, scratches

  • Missing or damaged items, e.g. clothing

  • ‘Losing’ items often, e.g. money, lunch

  • Resisting going to school or feeling ill in the morning

  • Reduced attendance

  • Difficulty concentrating or decreasing attainment

  • Refusal to discuss what’s upsetting them

  • Withdrawing from school life, their peers, family and friends

  • Difficulty forming new relationships

  • Frequent tears or anger

  • Changes to sleeping and/or eating patterns

  • Low self-esteem, depression or anxiety

  • Eating disorders

  • Self-harm


Unicef states, “Cyberbullying is bullying with the use of digital technologies. It can take place on social media, messaging platforms, gaming platforms and mobile phones. It is repeated behaviour, aimed at scaring, angering or shaming those who are targeted."

Alongside the indicators of bullying above, signs and indicators of cyberbullying include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Upset, frustration or anger, especially after being online

  • Refusal to share information about their online accounts and activities

  • Change in frequency of device/internet use

  • Deleting online accounts or withdrawing from previously liked activities (e.g. computer games)

Prejudice-Based and Discriminatory Bullying

Prejudice-based and discriminatory bullying can occur both online (cyberbullying) and offline where victims are targeted because of a real or perceived different based on protected characteristics, e.g. their disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, or any other real or perceived difference.

The signs are similar to those listed above, but could also include the pupil trying to change how they appear (e.g. a change in clothing choices or hairstyle) or how they act (e.g. using a different accent or mannerisms),

What puts pupils at greater risk of bullying?

Several factors can increase the risk of pupils being bullied. Pupils who are different compared to the majority, whether this is real or perceived, are at heightened risk. These differences can encompass various aspects such as race, ethnicity, religion, appearance, interests, mannerisms, gender identity, sexuality, ability, or wealth.

Additionally, pupils who live in care (looked-after children) face increased vulnerability to bullying as do pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and pupils who are also young carers.

Furthermore, new pupils in a setting may also be at increased risk of bullying as they navigate unfamiliar social dynamics and establish connections with their peers. 

Be aware...

What types of bullying are there?

When bullying (child-on-child abuse) occurs, it may take one, some or all of the following forms:

  • Physical bullying - involves physical acts as well as destruction of property.

  • Verbal bullying - includes name-calling, insults, teasing, discriminatory language and threats.

  • Covert bullying - aims to damage the victim’s reputation, e.g. through the use of rumours, humiliation or mockery. 

  • Alienation - encouraging others to alienate the victim or having ‘pack mentality’.

What can happen when cyberbullying occurs?

Where cyberbullying occurs, the types of bullying (i.e. verbal, covert) are the same but the way it's carried out differs. There can also be crossover with other forms of child-on-child abuse. Cyberbullying can include:

  • Harassment - sending repeated, hurtful messages or emails to the victim.

  • Flaming - posting hostile or insulting comments online, often in public forums or social media.

  • Exclusion - deliberately leaving someone out of online groups or activities to isolate them.

  • Impersonation - creating fake profiles or pretending to be someone else to deceive or harm the victim.

  • Outing - sharing someone's personal or embarrassing information online without their consent.

  • Cyberstalking - persistently following, monitoring, or harassing someone online.

  • Image sharing and forwarding - this can include sharing or forwarding nude and semi-nude images of the victim.

  • Humiliation and denigration - spreading rumours, gossip or embarrassing information or media about the victim online to damage their reputation, including tagging others in images and using memes to humiliate.

  • Doxxing - sharing someone's private information, such as their address or phone number, with malicious intent.

  • Threats - sending intimidating or threatening messages online, including threats of physical harm or violence.

  • Photoshopping and deep fakes - manipulating images or videos of the victim to embarrass or humiliate them.

  • Trolling - posting inflammatory or provocative messages online to provoke a reaction from the victim or others.

  • Catfishing - creating a fake online identity to deceive and manipulate the victim emotionally.

Cyberbullying can occur across a range of platforms and media, including:

  • Social media platforms 

  • Messaging apps 

  • Online forums and chat rooms

  • Online games and online gaming communities

  • Email

  • Blogs and vlogs

  • Photo and video sharing platforms

  • Livestreaming platform

  • Anonymous messaging apps

  • Virtual learning platforms

  • Online reviews and rating sites

Some of the platforms used may not be familiar to, or used by, adults. Technology and trends in the usage of different types of social media, apps and platforms also move quickly. Staying up to date in what pupils are currently accessing can be a challenge.

What other factors are there with prejudice-based and discriminatory bullying?

Sometimes, actions taken by those perpetrating bullying become criminal in nature. When it comes to prejudice-based and discriminatory bullying, this can include hate crimes. A hate crime is a criminal offence which is perceived to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, or any other perceived difference. They can include verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, bullying, assault and damage to property. Similarly, hate incidents can occur and while they don't always amount to criminal offences, they should still be recorded and reported.

Why do pupils bully others?

Bullying often stems from a desire to assert dominance and control over others, driven by various underlying factors:

  1. Stress and trauma - Pupils who have undergone traumatic experiences themselves may resort to bullying as a means of coping with their emotions.

  2. Challenging home environments - Growing up in volatile or unsupportive households, perhaps where abuse or neglect is also occurring, can foster feelings of frustration and alienation, prompting children and young people to seek validation through exerting power over their peers.

  3. Unstable relationships, friendships and peer groups - Pupils may succumb to peer pressure and engage in bullying behaviour to gain acceptance or validation from their social circles.

  4. Aggressive behaviours - Some pupils may exhibit aggression as a response to personal issues that they find challenging to address openly, leading them to lash out at others instead of seeking support. 

  5. Low self-esteem: Those grappling with feelings of inadequacy or insecurity may resort to bullying as a way to deflect attention from their own struggles and project a false sense of superiority onto others.

  6. Victim-turned-bully dynamics: In a vicious cycle, pupils who have been bullied themselves may adopt bullying behaviour as a defence mechanism, perpetuating negative patterns of interaction.

  7. Lack of education: Without education and guidance, pupils may perceive bullying as acceptable norms, perpetuating harmful behaviours within their communities.

When a pupil is bullied, it can be challenging to consider the perpetrator's needs as our focus is often on supporting the victim. However, pupils who perpetrate bullying can also be experiencing abuse, neglect and exploitation, or will need support to understand their actions so they do not bully others in the future. Identifying this and offering appropriate and relevant support to both the victim and perpetrator is crucial when tackling bullying.

Take action

  • Teach a robust RSE/PSHE curriculum and ensure equality and diversity is considered in all teaching and learning.

  • Uphold your school’s values and demonstrate zero tolerance towards bullying.

  • Listen to and watch for signs and indicators that bullying is taking place.

  • Stay up to date with online safety developments and work in partnership with your school community members.

  • Tackle bullying of all forms swiftly when it does occur by following your school’s policies, including accurate record-keeping.

  • If significant harm or an offence is occurring or likely to occur, follow the safeguarding procedures and speak to the DSL.

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Ready to train your staff?

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Bullying: Safeguarding Training Bundle

This flexible pack contains seven resources to support your training on the child protection issue of bullying, cyberbullying and prejudice-based and discriminatory bullying:

  • A ready-made safeguarding training PowerPoint presentation on bullying.

  • Two fictional safeguarding scenarios on bullying, including prejudiced-based bullying (LGBT+), that staff can discuss by identifying signs and indicators of harm in order to share how they'd respond.

  • A set of quiz questions on bullying to assess staff understanding and a discussion prompt to get staff thinking.

  • Three safeguarding snapshots (one-page, one-minute guides) to display or disseminate as a follow-up to the training. 

Find out more

Back to Knowledge Pathfinder: Safeguarding
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