Bullying And Peer Abuse Articles, Research & Resources

Karina Thadani
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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About Bullying and Peer Abuse

Bullying or peer abuse is when an individual or group tries to intimidate, coerce, or harm someone they perceive as vulnerable or weak. These acts may be physical, verbal, or both. Generally, there are two main motives behind bullying: The bully wants to feel powerful while also making their victims feel helpless or humiliated. 

Although anyone can be the victim of bullying and peer abuse, the most common forms are workplace bullying and bullying in schools. About 13% of Americans experienced some sort of abuse at work in the past year. (1) Meanwhile, around 20% of students between the ages of 12 and 18 have gone through bullying at some point. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of bullying incidents happened in person. (2) Since 2020, however, online bullying (or cyberbullying) cases have increased.

Over time, bullying and peer abuse can have an adverse impact on mental well-being. Victims of bullying are more likely to feel rejected and excluded, which may lead to isolation or low self-esteem. In serious cases, victims may develop mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. (3) These symptoms can result from any type of bullying, whether in-person bullying, peer abuse, or cyberbullying. 


What Is Bullying?

As mentioned earlier, there are different types of bullying (such as physical and verbal bullying). For an act to qualify as bullying, it must meet the following criteria:

  • Aggression: The behavior is aggressive or hostile.
  • Power imbalance: The bully uses some sort of power (such as physical strength, intimidation, or popularity) to hurt their victim.
  • Repetition: The behavior occurs more than once. (4)

A small percentage of in-person bullying cases among students (about 5%) involve physical bullying, such as pushing, kicking, and hitting. Most cases consist of verbal or social bullying, like name-calling, teasing, and malicious rumors. (5)

Verbal bullying often takes place online. Insulting or taunting messages may be shared through social media websites, text messages, and online forums. Because many people have access to the internet, cyberbullying incidents are often more public than in-person bullying cases. Furthermore, online bullies have the ability to remain anonymous, which may encourage them to be meaner or more persistent. This can have a major impact on mental well-being — according to one study, cyberbullying victims are twice as likely to experience suicidal thoughts or behavior. (6)

What Is Peer Abuse?

Peer abuse is a form of bullying in which the perpetrator and victim are around the same age. It's often confused with peer pressure, which is external influence that affects one's personality, behavior, and morals. For example, peer pressure might involve using verbal insults or persuasion to make the victim engage in a negative behavior (such as doing drugs). (7)

Peer abuse may include instances of peer pressure, but it's usually more intense. The abuse might consist of the following behavior:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Sexual
  • Financial (8)

This abuse can be leveraged either directly or indirectly. In direct peer abuse, the bullying behavior is done face-to-face. The bully may hurl verbal insults at the victim, or they might physically hurt them. Indirect peer abuse, on the other hand, is conducted behind the victim's back. It might involve spreading rumors or encouraging others to ostracize the victim.

Whether it's direct or indirect, peer abuse can have serious consequences. Not only does it encourage unhealthy behaviors, but it also affects mental well-being. Studies show that peer abuse may lead to increased stress and a higher likelihood of developing depression and anxiety. (9)

How to Stop Bullying 

Bullies often attempt to make their victims feel powerless. As a result, victims may believe their situation is hopeless. While dealing with bullying is difficult, there are methods to prevent and stop it. Examples include:

  • Asking the bully to stop
  • Ignoring the bully
  • Telling a trusted adult

Openly communicating with the bully or ignoring their actions may compel them to stop. If these tactics don't work or the victim doesn't feel safe using them, the next step is reaching out to an adult, such as a parent or teacher, who may be able to help. (10)

How to Cope With Bullying and Press Abuse 

For many people, bullying and peer abuse aren't short-term incidents. The long-term effects of bullying can linger for years, leading to ongoing emotional distress. (11) To help limit the mental and emotional effects of bullying, it's advisable to engage in healthy coping mechanisms, such as:

  • Creating distance from the bully
  • Relying on friends and family
  • Improving self-esteem

A good way to cope with bullying is creating distance from negative influences. For example, if someone is being cyberbullied on a social media platform, they should consider disabling their account or blocking the bully. It's also helpful to spend more time with trusted individuals, such as friends and family. Studies show that social support can reduce stress and improve both mental and physical well-being. (12)

Another way to cope is by working on self-confidence. Bullying often causes low self-esteem, increasing the likelihood of depression and anxiety. (13) A few ways people can improve self-esteem are complimenting themselves, acknowledging accomplishments, and engaging in enjoyable hobbies. Psychological treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can also help by turning negative thought patterns into positive ones. (14)

How to Help Someone Who Is Being Bullied

Bullying victims often turn to trusted adults for help. According to a study by the Youth Voice Research Project, 60% of victims turn to an adult at home, while 42% contact an adult at school. The same study also suggests these are the top three ways to help someone who's being bullied:

  • Listen to them
  • Offer advice
  • Continuously check in

When these strategies were implemented, the victim's situation was more likely to improve than to worsen. In some cases, direct intervention — such as speaking with the bully or contacting their parents — also helped. (15) Ultimately, if someone is being bullied or abused by a peer, offering support can go a long way toward resolving the situation.