Protecting children from bullying and cyberbullying

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018
Introduction

Bullying is when individuals or groups seek to harm, intimidate or coerce someone who is perceived to be vulnerable (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018).

It can involve people of any age, and can happen anywhere – at home, school or using digital technologies (cyberbullying). This means it can happen at any time.

Bullying encompasses a range of behaviours which are often combined. 

Verbal abuse:

  • name-calling
  • saying nasty things to or about a child.

Physical abuse:

  • hitting a child
  • pushing a child
  • physical assault.

Emotional abuse:

  • making threats
  • undermining a child
  • excluding a child from a friendship group or activities.

Cyberbullying/online bullying: 

  • excluding a child from online games, activities or friendship groups
  • sending threatening, upsetting or abusive messages
  • creating and sharing embarrassing or malicious images or videos
  • 'trolling' - sending menacing or upsetting messages on social networks, chat rooms or online games
  • voting for or against someone in an abusive poll
  • setting up hate sites or groups about a particular child
  • encouraging young people to self-harm
  • creating fake accounts, hijacking or stealing online identities to embarrass a young person or cause trouble using their name.
Impact

Impact of bullying

The emotional effects of being bullied include:

  • sadness, depression and anxiety 
  • low self-esteem
  • social isolation
  • self-harm
  • suicidal thoughts and feelings (Bainbridge, Ross and Woodhouse, 2017).

Bullying can affect children's performance and attendance at school. They may find it hard to concentrate on schoolwork and homework, or be too afraid to go to school (Brown, Clery and Ferguson, 2011).

Bullying can happen at any time or anywhere - a child can be bullied online when they are alone in their bedroom trying to relax or do homework - so it can feel like there's no escape (NSPCC, 2016). This can make it even more difficult for children to cope with being bullied.

If a child is being bullied online, they may not know who is bullying them (the bully may have created an anonymous online account). This can be extremely frightening.

Children who have witnessed another child being bullied may also be distressed. They may not know the best way to help the person being bullied. They may fear for their own safety and experience feelings of guilt for not stepping in (Children’s Commissioner for Wales, 2017; NSPCC, 2016).

Who is involved?

Who is involved?

Why children bully others

There are many reasons why children bully others and it's not always a straightforward situation. Some of these include:

  • peer pressure and/or wanting the approval of others
  • wanting to feel powerful over someone with a perceived disadvantage
  • being bullied themselves
  • being worried, unhappy or upset about something
  • lacking social skills or not understanding how others feel.

Children who bully others may not understand that they are making life difficult for another child, and may find this realisation very distressing. It can be difficult for them to get the support they need to change their behaviour (NSPCC, 2016).

When posting online, children may not consider the impact their actions will have on others. Some children may be more likely to engage in bullying behaviour online as they can create anonymous accounts which may make them feel as if they can’t be 'found out'.

Vulnerability factors

Any child can be bullied. If a child is seen as 'different' in some way they can be more at risk (Children’s Commissioner for Wales, 2017).

This might be because of their:

  • physical appearance
  • race
  • faith
  • academic ability
  • gender identity
  • sexuality.

Or it could be because they:

  • appear anxious or have low self-esteem
  • lack assertiveness
  • are shy or introverted.

Popular or successful children can also be bullied, for example if others are jealous of them.

Sometimes a child's family circumstance or home life can be a reason for someone bullying them.

Children with disabilities and/or special educational needs can experience bullying because they are perceived to be an 'easy target' and less able to defend themselves.

Recognising and responding

Recognising and responding to bullying

Signs and indicators

Indicators that a child could be experiencing bullying include:

  • being reluctant to go to school
  • being distressed or anxious
  • losing confidence and becoming withdrawn
  • having problems eating and/or sleeping
  • having unexplained injuries
  • changes in appearance
  • changes in performance and/or behaviour at school.

Adults may notice that a child isn't spending time with their usual group of friends, has become isolated or that other children's behaviour towards a child has changed.

Reporting

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Responding to incidents

Organisations should have a consistent approach to how they respond to bullying, which should be outlined in an anti-bullying policy.

When responding to incidents or allegations of bullying it's important for staff and volunteers to:

  • listen to all the children involved to establish what has happened 
  • record details of the incident and any actions you've taken
  • inform your nominated child protection lead
  • inform parents and carers (unless doing so would put a child at further risk of harm)
  • provide support to the child/children being bullied, children who witnessed the bullying and the child/children who has been accused of bullying
  • ask the child/children who have been bullied what they would like to happen next
  • consider appropriate sanctions for children that have carried out bullying
  • continue to monitor the situation even if the situation has been resolved.
Prevention

Preventing bullying

It's important for organisations that work with children to create a culture where children feel they can tell someone if they have a problem and where it is clearly communicated that bullying will not be tolerated.

This might include:

  • talking to young people about healthy relationships to help create positive social norms and challenge unhealthy behaviours
  • promoting sources of help and information such as Childline so children know where to go to get help if they don’t feel able to talk to any of the adults working with them.

> Visit the Childline website

Schools

Schools in particular have an important role to play in teaching children that bullying is unacceptable and giving them the skills to build positive relationships (Bainbridge, Ross and Woodhouse, 2017).

Anti-bullying messages can be shared through personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU) and personal and social education (PSE) lessons and school assemblies. For younger children circle time can be used to discuss feelings around friendships and worries they may have.

We've worked with the PSHE Association to create lesson plans for young people aged 10-16 on personal safety and healthy relationships. The resources for 10-11-year-olds include work on friendship.

Our Speak out Stay safe service for schools helps primary school children understand abuse in all its forms and know how to protect themselves.

> Find out more about Speak out Stay safe

As part of the Royal Foundation Taskforce on the Prevention of Cyberbullying we worked with a panel of young people to develop a campaign that would help others know what to do if they see bullying online. Our Stop, speak, support resource pack helps 11-16-year-olds think about how they respond to cyberbullying and what they can do to stop it spreading.

Legislation and guidance

Key legislation

Across the UK there is legislation to protect children from a range of bullying and cyberbullying behaviour, including:

  • persistent harassment and intimidation – such as name calling and threats
  • sending indecent, offensive, false or threatening communications.

Harassment and victimisation

In England, Scotland and Wales, the Equality Act 2010 protects the individual’s right to be safe from discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

In Northern Ireland, Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1988 is the main anti-discrimination legislation and places public authorities in Northern Ireland, including schools, under a duty to promote equality of opportunity.

In England, Wales, and Scotland the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 prohibits repeated bullying that amounts to harassment.

In Northern Ireland, the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 makes it illegal to behave in a way that amounts to harassment.

Cyberbullying

Throughout the UK, the Communications Act 2003 makes it an offence to make improper use of a public communications network. Section 127 specifically makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.

In England and Wales, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety.

In Northern Ireland, the Malicious Communications (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 makes it an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety.

In Scotland, breach of the peace common law may be used to prosecute any behaviour that causes fear or distress, including harassment and bullying (Scottish Government, 2013).

> Find out more about the legislation and guidance for online abuse

Schools’ duty to protect pupils from bullying

In England and Wales, under Section 89 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, maintained schools must have a policy in place to encourage good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying among pupils.

The Independent School Standards (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 requires academies and other types of independent schools to have an anti-bullying strategy in place.

In Northern Ireland, under the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 and the Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, all grant-aided schools are required to have an anti-bullying policy in place that includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils.

In Scotland, under the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Act 2007, schools are required to be ‘health promoting’. This includes promoting children’s mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing. The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 provides for support for children and young people who face barriers to learning – which can include additional support needs due to bullying.

In England and Wales, Section 89 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 gives head teachers of state schools the power to discipline students for bullying incidents that occur outside of school.

Key guidance

Across the UK, statutory guidance highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect including bullying and cyberbullying. Find out more about child protection legislation and guidance in:

Guidance for schools

The Equality Act 2010 and schools (PDF) is a guide for school leaders, school staff, governing bodies and local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales on understanding their duties under the Equality Act (Department for Education, 2014a).

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has produced guidance for headteachers, school staff and local authorities that outlines their duty to prevent and tackle bullying that occurs in and outside of school (PDF) (DfE, 2017). 

The DfE has also produced guidance for schools on searching, screening and confiscation (PDF). In cases of cyberbullying school staff may use this guidance to search mobile phones (DfE, 2018).

In Northern Ireland, Safeguarding and child protection in schools - a guide for schools (PDF) includes guidance on schools' duty to protect children and young people from abuse including bullying and cyberbullying (Department of Education, 2001a) .

Pastoral care in schools: promoting positive behaviour (PDF) is a guide for schools in developing an anti-bullying policy (Department of Education, 2001b).

Scotland’s national anti-bullying service is Respectme. The service supports adults working with children and young people in dealing with all types of bullying behaviour including:

  • developing an anti-bullying policy
  • addressing homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying
  • understanding and responding to bullying (Scottish Government, 2018).

The Welsh Government provides Respecting others, a series of anti-bullying guidance for schools and other organisations. This includes information on:

  • bullying around race, religion and culture
  • bullying around special educational needs and disabilities
  • homophobic and transphobic bullying
  • sexist and sexual bullying
  • cyberbullying (Welsh Government, 2011).

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) and the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) have produced a guide for schools (PDF) on tackling race and faith targeted bullying that occurs face to face and online (UKCCIS and ABA, 2017).

Keeping children safe from cyberbullying

The Home Office has developed the Online abuse and bullying prevention guide (PDF) for those who work with young people in England and Wales to help them understand the types of online abuse, its consequences and where to go for help. Topics covered include:

  • threatening behaviour
  • cyberbullying
  • online grooming (Home Office, 2015).

In England, the Department for Education has published a guide for headteachers and school staff on protecting themselves from cyberbullying (PDF) (DfE, 2014b).

The Welsh Government has produced guidance on tacking cyberbullying in schools (PDF). The guidance includes information on:

  • understanding cyberbullying
  • the law around cyberbullying
  • preventing and responding to cyberbullying (Welsh Government, 2011b).

> Take our Keeping children safe online course to help anyone who works with children across the UK understand what they need to do to safeguard children online.

Key policy

In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF) has published the NIABF strategic plan: 2017-2020 to end bullying (PDF), including online bullying/cyberbullying. The plan outlines four outcomes:

  • having effective anti-bullying policies in place in schools and similar settings
  • providing those who work with children and parents with the skills and knowledge to address bullying behaviour
  • empowering children and young people to shape anti-bullying policy and procedure
    using an evidence-based approach within the NIABF itself (NIABF, 2017).

In Scotland, Respect for all: the national approach to anti-bullying for Scotland’s children and young people (PDF) provides a framework for adults working with children and young people to address all aspects of bullying, including cyberbullying. The approach highlights the government's strategy to end bullying, including a commitment to:

  • developing and implementing effective anti-bullying policies and practices
  • improving children and young people’s skills, and those who play a role in their lives, to prevent and deal with bullying (Scottish Government, 2017).

Keep up to date with new legislation and guidance by signing up to CASPAR, our current awareness service for policy, practice and research.

References and resources

References and resources

Bainbridge, J. Ross, C. and Woodhouse, A. (2017) Inquiry into bullying and harassment in schools: children and young people's voices and experiences of bullying and harassment in schools (PDF) [Edinburgh]: Children in Scotland.

Brown, V., Clery, E. and Ferguson, C. (2011) Estimating the prevalence of young people absent from school due to bullying (PDF) [Cambridge]: Red Balloon Learner Centre Group.

Children's Commissioner for Wales (Comisiynydd Plant Cymru) (2017) Sam's story: listening to children and young people's experiences of bullying in Wales (PDF) Swansea: Children's Commissioner for Wales.

Department for Education (DfE) (2014a) The Equality Act 2010 and schools (PDF). London: Department for Education.

Department for Education (DfE) (2014b) Cyberbullying: advice for headteachers and school staff (PDF). London: Department for Education.

Department for Education (DfE) (2017) Preventing and tackling bullying: advice for headteachers, staff and governing bodies (PDF). London: Department for Education.

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Searching, screening and confiscation: advice for headteachers, school staff and governing bodies (PDF). London: Department for Education.

Department of Education (2001a) Safeguarding and child protection in schools - a guide for schools (PDF). Belfast: Department of Education.

Department of Education (2001b) Pastoral care in schools: promoting positive behaviour (PDF). Belfast: Department of Education

Department of Education (2017) Safeguarding and child protection in schools - a guide for schools (PDF). [Belfast]: Department for Education.

Home Office (2015) Online abuse and bullying prevention guide (PDF) London: Home Office.

Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF) (2017) NIABF strategic plan: 2017-2020 (PDF). Belfast: Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF).

NSPCC (2016) What children are telling us about bullying: Childline bullying report 2015/16 (PDF) [London]: NSPCC.

Oxford English Dictionary (2018) Bully [Accessed 03/09/18]. 

Scottish Government (2013) Stalking & harassment - criminal law. [Accessed 10/10/2018]

Scottish Government (2017) Respect for all: the national approach to anti-bullying for Scotland’s children and young people (PDF). Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Scottish Government (2018) Respectme: Scotland’s anti-bullying service. Glasgow: Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH). [Accessed 01/10/2018]

UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) and the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) (2017) Tackling race and faith targeted bullying face to face and online: a short guide for schools (PDF). London: National Children's Bureau.

Welsh Government (2011) Respecting others: anti-bullying guidance. Cardiff: Welsh Government. [Accessed 01/10/2018]

Welsh Government (2011b) Respecting others: cyberbullying (PDF). Cardiff: Welsh Government.

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read information and advice for young people affected by bullying:

You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Elearning

Our Keeping children safe online course will help you to gain the skills to protect children from online abuse, including cyberbullying.

Further reading

For further reading about bullying, search the NSPCC Library using the keywords "bullying" "cyberbullying".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.