Identifying bullying and harassment

Information for children and parents to identify what constitutes bullying and harassment, and when is it a crime.


Bullying is repeated behaviour which is done on purpose to make someone feel hurt, upset, scared or embarrassed involving an individual or a group misusing their power over one or more people.

Bullying can be :

  • physical - eg hitting, poking, pushing or  tripping
  • verbal - eg name calling, insults or abuse
  • social - (covert or hidden) eg excluding someone, lying about someone, spreading rumours
  • psychological - threatening, manipulating or stalking behaviour
  • cyberbullying - using technologies by sending hurtful messages, pictures or comments..

Some conflicts between children are a normal part of growing up and are to be expected. Single incidents and conflicts or fights between equals, whether in person or online, are not considered bullying, even though they may be upsetting and need to be resolved.

Identifying bullying can sometimes be difficult. Bullying is often conducted out of sight of parents and teachers, and children are often reluctant to report it.

Online bullying

Online bullying is often referred to as cyber-bullying, and is carried out using technology such as email, mobile phones, chat rooms or social networking sites.

It can involve:

  • repeated hang up calls
  • sending insulting or threatening text messages
  • publishing someone’s personal or embarrassing information online
  • creating hate sites or starting exclusion campaigns on social networking sites.


Harassment occurs when someone is made to feel intimidated, insulted or humiliated because of their:

  • identity, race, culture or ethnic origin
  • religion
  • physical characteristics
  • gender
  • sexual orientation/identity
  • marital, parenting or economic status
  • age
  • ability or disability.

It can include behaviour such as:

  • telling insulting jokes about particular racial groups
  • sending explicit or sexually suggestive emails
  • displaying offensive posters or screen savers
  • making derogatory comments or taunts about someone’s race, religion or sexuality.

It may be:

  • an ongoing pattern of behaviour or a single act
  • directed randomly or towards the same person
  • intentional or unintentional.

Signs of being bullied or harassed

A child’s behaviour can change for a variety of reasons. However, the following signs could indicate that a child is being bullied:

  • not wanting to go to school
  • not having friends
  • having damaged or missing belongings
  • being unusually secretive and quiet
  • a drop in academic performance
  • having physical injuries like bruises and scratches
  • not sleeping properly
  • having physical aches and pains like headaches or stomach pains.

Signs your child might be a bully

Signs of cyberbullying

Cyberbullying often occurs along with face-to-face bullying. The signs of cyberbullying can be the same as for other bullying, but include certain behaviour with phones and computers.

Recognising the signs on the Education Department website covers:

  • what cyberbullying looks like
  • signs your child might be involved in cyberbullying.

Bullying as a crime

In serious cases, bullying can be a crime.

The law in this area is complicated and this is just a summary.

Bullying may be considered a crime if someone:

  • causes you physical or mental harm and means to do it
  • threatens to hurt or kill you
  • stalks you (stalking is when someone follows, watches, or contacts you repeatedly in a way that scares you and they are intentionally meaning to make you afraid
  • damages your things on purpose or steals from you.

The bullying might also be against the law if it falls under a protected category of discrimination (for example discrimination based on race or gender).


eCrime occurs when a computer or other electronic communication devices (eg mobile phones) are used to commit an offence, are targeted in an offence, or act as a storage device in an offence.

Some examples are:


Example: ' I took a photo with my mobile of my girlfriend naked and sent it by text to everyone. What a laugh!' (The girlfriend was under 18 years old).

Offence: Production or dissemination of child pornography.


Example: 'I got into their email account and sent abusive emails to everyone in the address book.'

Offence: Unlawful operation of a computer system.


Example: 'He told me if I didn't do what he said that he would put that photo on the internet and tell all my friends. I was so embarrassed.'

Offence: Blackmail.


Example: 'I created a website about X and we all put stuff on there about how much they and everyone else like them are hated.'

Offence: Racial vilification.

Other offences

Using internet or mobile phone carriers to:

  • distribute suicide-related material
  • make a threat
  • menace, harass or cause offence.

Get legal advice

For free legal advice contact:

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Page last updated 13 September 2021

Provided by:
Department for Education
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