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How is “direct bullying” different from “indirect bullying”?

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Direct bullying: Behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates and is overt, obvious, and apparent to anyone witnessing it. The actions and words are easy to identify, the identity of the person bullying is usually known, and the acts are focused toward the person being bullied – they know about the bullying as it is happening.

Indirect bullying: Behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates, which is often covert, subtle, and not always immediately acknowledged as bullying. The words and actions can be harder to identify, can be done anonymously and discreetly, and the target might not find out about the bullying until long after it has happened.

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Direct bullying: Behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates and is overt, obvious, and apparent to anyone witnessing it. The actions and words are easy to identify, the identity of the person bullying is usually known, and the acts are directed toward the person being bullied – they know about the bullying as it is happening.

Indirect bullying: Behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates, which is often covert, subtle, and not always immediately acknowledged as bullying. The words and actions can be harder to identify, can be done anonymously and discreetly, and the target might not find out about the bullying until long after it has happened.

A lot of bullying is very overt and direct. A few examples include:

  • Pushing someone on the playground
  • Books knocked from hands
  • Taunts toward a student in gym class
  • Cruel words scrawled across a locker
  • Refusals of requests to partner on projects or participate in groups

Physical bullying is obvious and apparent to anyone witnessing it. Behaviors such as hitting, kicking, inappropriate touching, breaking objects, and taking or damaging another’s possessions can be easily seen or leave tangible evidence. Some emotional bullying can also be easy to recognize and identify because the behavior can be heard or read: name calling, shared notes and messages, or publicly shared gossip online or offline.

Most students recognize there are consequences for bullying that adults see or hear. With this type of bullying we see that:

  • The person being targeted knows it is happening
  • The identity of the person bullying is usually known
  • There is typically evidence of the behavior

These facts often make it easier to hold the individuals involved accountable and give the person targeted support and solutions.

The covert, not-so-obvious acts of bullying

Many acts of bullying are done indirectly, and are much more subtle, such as:

  • A mean spirited note taped to a locker when no one is looking
  • A joke shared to a large group demeaning someone’s intellectual abilities
  • An unflattering photo taken without someone’s knowledge and posted anonymously
  • Personal belongings stolen from a backpack and thrown in the trash
  • Embarrassing personal information documented and shared without permission
  • Intentionally excluding one person while including everyone else
  • Gossip intended to damage someone’s reputation

These examples of bullying can be more difficult to address, as often:

  • The person responsible can’t be identified because the behavior is done anonymously, such as through a fake social media account
  • It’s carried out by multiple students in which they collectively acted, which has the potential to reduce individual accountability
  • It happens in physical locations where adults are not present, such as a locker room or isolated hallway, so that there are no witnesses or no one is available to intervene
  • It’s done through technology, using platforms that adults don’t have access to, such as group text chats or social media accounts that only students are using
  • The person(s) bullying has more social power and the social savvy to manipulate adults and other students to rationalize their inappropriate behavior as “kids just being kids”
  • The target is threatened that if they say anything, things will get much worse for them
  • Not all adults, or students, view small acts as bullying, such as whispering when someone walks into a room, believing that the acts need to be significant in scope to meet the definition of bullying
  • There are questions as to whether the action or behavior was “intentional” (one of the hallmarks of bullying); for example, bumping into another student in the hallway could be accidental or it could be done to exhibit power and control
  • Bullying is socially nuanced, meaning those involved are aware that the behavior is mean, inappropriate, or demeaning; they have insight into the social context that the casual observer doesn’t, such as a nickname that seems innocent enough, but could be based on an attribute the person gets teased about
  • Those involved are socially sophisticated and justify their behavior by saying, “We’re just joking around,” or, “I was just kidding,” or, “It’s no big deal, we’re all friends,” but in reality it is calculated to hurt or harm the person targeted

The impact

The emotional impact from the not-so-obvious, indirect ways that someone is bullied can be intensified by additional factors such as:

  • Not knowing who is responsible for the bullying. When it’s done anonymously, students often
    • Question who did it and become anxious about who it might be
    • Don’t know who they can trust
    • Think that everyone might be against them
    • Feel isolated from peers
  • Lack of accountability for the person or group who is doing the bullying. It’s hard to stop behavior or set consequences when it’s not known who is behind it. There is no real closure for the person being targeted when there is no resolution or when no one is held accountable.
  • The behavior is not taken seriously as it didn’t directly happen to the target; most people recognize the pain caused by physical actions, but the emotional impact caused by bullying through gossip, innuendo, or threats is much harder to quantify
  • Cyberbullying’s potential to travel widely and reach more people, possibly even taking the negative messages outside of the social circle where the target is known, maybe even to the world
  • Cyberbullying does not stop at the end of the school day and many kids continue to experience the behavior 24 hours a day
  • The items and photos posted online can be easily shared and stored, which means they can resurface at any time, even long after the initial incident
  • The person bullying isn’t face to face with their target, which can make it easier to act with more aggression or cruelty as they are removed from seeing the level of harm that they are causing

While indirect bullying can be much harder to recognize than direct bullying, there is one constant in all bullying, whether it is direct and apparent or covert and subtle: it causes hurt, harm, and humiliation to the target and it is never acceptable behavior.

Posted December, 2019

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