To tackle bullying, we must understand it

17 Nov 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 17 Nov 2020

More than half of young people in Northern Ireland say they have been bullied in the past six months, according to research from the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum.


It’s Anti-Bullying Week and, as with everything else in the year 2020, it is natural to wonder whether Covid-19 has impacted this particular issue.

The pandemic has upended society, temporarily. The ways that people interact with each other have changed. Perhaps the frequency with which they interact, too.

So many things in our lives, good and bad, have bent themselves around both Covid-19 and our individual and collective efforts to deal with it.

The Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF) is a coalition of statutory and third sector organisations, currently chaired by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB). To coincide with Anti-Bullying Week, the organisations released results from a survey it commissioned into local young people’s experiences of bullying, which found:

  • 56% of local children say they have been bullied a bit (33%) or a lot (23%) in the past six months
  • Of those children, 47% said this happened at school, 43% said it was online, 44% said it was on the way to or from school, and 47% said it happened in their community
  • 73% of children surveyed said they had more than one good friend before the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020 but that figure has since dropped to 62%
  • 23% of children say they think bullying has become worse during the pandemic

A total of 1,093 children were polled for this survey. One of those young people said: “I know we have to socially distance from each other during this pandemic, but some of my friends are going out of their way to avoid being anywhere near me. I find it really rude, and I’m actually quite upset.”

Another said: “Bullying has now taken a digital form. People who used to get bullied at school are now being bullied at social media sites.”


Last month, the Health and Social Care Board released a huge piece of work looking at the mental health and wellbeing of young people in NI.

The report was 18 months in the making and so pretty much predates the pandemic. One of the things it looks at was experiences of bullying.

At first glance, its results look very different than those found in the NIABF polling. A closer inspection, however, indicates their findings could be in concert.

HSCB found that around one in six (16.8%) of young people have experienced “traditional” bullying while 14.9% have experienced cyberbullying. Furthermore, its report said: “There was a significant association between bullying and cyber bullying; 8.1% experienced only cyber bullying, 9.9% experienced only bullying, and 6.9% experienced both forms.”

This means that around 25% of young children surveyed said they had been the victims of bullying –a lot less than the 56% identified in the NIABF survey.

This comparison is not designed to call the results of either poll into question. Understanding an issue like this properly requires a sense of scale. Taking the time to see how both sets of findings could be measuring the same picture will lead to a better understanding of bullying itself.

First of all, and probably most of all, is timescale. HSCB asked about incidences of bullying in the month before answering the question, whereas the NIABF poll asked about six months.

Another factor could well be the framing of the question. Children and young people who are simply asked whether they have experienced bullying (as with the HSCB poll) might well use a higher bar to answer yes compared with when they are presented with the graduated options of being bullied a bit, or a lot, as with the NIABF survey.

Note that the difference in percentage of those who told the HSCB they had experienced bullying (around 25%) is very close to the 23% of those who told NIABF they had been bullied a lot.

And, of course, Covid-19 might have led to more bullying and, thus, mean the NIABF figures are relatively higher (albeit this does not appear to be a massive factor, given the figures).


Academic methods and rigour are under a great deal of pressure these days.

Even if most people see their value, it is worth remembering how young a lot of formal analysis really is. Proper study of bullying is itself only 50 years old.

The pioneer in this field was Professor Dan Olweus, who died in September at the age of 89. As part of Anti-Bullying Week, the NIABF published an article about his remarkable life and influence.

Dr Donna Kernaghan, Vice Chair, Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum, wrote: “It is difficult to overstate the significance of Olweus’ anti-bullying work. Olweus was the first to identify that bullying was a phenomenon which required systematic study in order to prevent and reduce incidents. Until his work, little attention has been paid to bullying and it was largely accepted as an inescapable, normal part of growing up…

“Olweus also formulated the most widely used and adapted definition of bullying. This aspect of the work was vital to enable common understanding and vocabulary about the problem and to develop ways to address it.

“Although consensus of a single definition of bullying has not been established, Olweus argued that the commonly recognised characteristics that define bullying include: (i) the intention of the bully to cause harm; (ii) repetition and; (iii) an imbalance of power.

“Indeed, these characteristics are used in Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum’s own definition of bullying, “the repeated use of power by one or more persons intentionally to harm, hurt or adversely affect the rights and needs of another or others”.

“Drawing on his experience from Sweden, Olweus developed his ‘Bully/Victim Questionnaire’ measuring tool which was anonymous and could be administered by teachers. This questionnaire was different from other surveys on the subject because it provided a definition of bullying, the questions referred to a specific time period and it had fairly specific response alternatives.”

Prof. Olweus’ influence on both the studies examined above should be clear – and his efforts to take on bullying did not stop at measurement. He also developed the Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme which has been shown to successfully reduce instances of bullying.

What now

NIABF works towards four different outcomes:

  • Schools and other settings have effective anti-bullying policies which include appropriate preventative and responsive strategies to address bullying behaviour.
  • Parents, carers, teachers and other practitioners working with children and young people have the skills and knowledge to address bullying behaviour and its impact effectively.
  • Children and young people are empowered to become valued participants in anti-bullying policy and practice.
  • The Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum is well governed and proactively informed by evidence of need.

These all make sense. Schools in Northern Ireland have leeway in how they tackle bullying. However, they do face some requirements, per the Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.

Schools have to comply with the legislative definition of bullying (laid down in the Act); they must have an anti-bullying policy that includes preventative measures, and which must be updated every four years; governors must ensure this policy is both fit for purpose and properly implemented; schools must engage with pupils/parents/carers/the school community when developing and reviewing their policy; schools must record incidents of bullying and alleged bullying behaviours “including the motivation, method and how each incident was addressed together with the outcomes”.

Parents can look to support for several places, including third sector organisations like Parenting NI. Similarly, children can access support at organisations like the NCB.

However, it is clear that more can be done to tie all this support together.

As the NIABF and HSCB polling shows, bullying is extremely common. However, it is not something children simply have to accept. Its something we can learn about, understand – and take on.

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