Protecting children from bullying and cyberbullying

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018

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 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.


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 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.

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 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.

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.

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]. 


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.


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.