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Bullying in College: How It Happens and What You Can Do to Stop It

By Publisher
| Last Updated April 12, 2021

It's sad but true: Bullying in college is a real issue. Many people associate bullying with children and find it hard to believe that it would continue beyond high school. But even adults in higher education can find themselves the target of malicious and demeaning behavior on the part of their peers (or even their professors).

And bullying can be particularly challenging to address at the college level. For one thing, college faculty are typically not as concerned with classroom management as elementary or high school teachers are, and they are less likely to mediate interpersonal disputes. Plus, many students are on their own for the first time, living far away from family members who could intervene and offer support. College students are also experiencing all the extra stress that comes from trying to handle their finances and balance their course loads. And if the person doing the bullying is a roommate or dorm acquaintance, it can be very difficult or even impossible to relax and escape.

Fortunately, more people are becoming aware of the issues surrounding bullying. To bring attention to the problem, many schools observe a designated bullying awareness day. In addition, did you know that October is National Bullying Prevention Month? Begun in 2006 by PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, the campaign's goal is to help more people understand that bullying has lasting negative effects and should not be viewed as just a normal part of growing up.

By arming yourself with the facts, you can be better prepared to bring an end to college bullying. Below, you will find information on bullying that explains what it is, what forms it takes, what effects it has, and (most importantly) what you can do to stop it.

What Is Bullying?

There is no one universally accepted definition. But generally speaking, bullying is a deliberate and hostile act that is meant to cause fear in or harm to another person. It is repeatedly perpetrated by someone who wields (or is perceived to wield) greater power or status than their target. Bullying is intended to demean another person who typically has great difficulty stopping the actions that are directed at them.

So, what is a bully? It's a person who intentionally and repeatedly engages in aggressive behavior in order to humiliate, hurt, or intimidate others. Bullies are often stronger or more socially powerful than their targets whom they seek to gain control over.

The imbalance of power and the repetitive nature of the behavior is what distinguishes bullying from just plain meanness. "Mean" is when someone says or does something with the intention of hurting you. That person might be lashing out in anger or frustration, and the event could be a one-time thing. But bullying is when someone who has more power than you persistently and purposefully demeans you over time.

Bullying at the college level

Many people think of bullies only in the context of middle school students getting slammed into lockers and having their lunch money stolen. It's often assumed that kids mature and grow out of such behaviors by the time they leave high school. And indeed, much of the research on bullying has focused on the K-12 demographic.

But the unfortunate truth is that college bullying also exists. In fact, in one study, more than a quarter of the 1,025 undergraduates who were surveyed said they had witnessed bullying among college students. A separate study had similar findings: 23 percent of college students reported having been bullied by one of their peers.

What's even more disturbing is that 18.5 percent of students in the latter study said they had been bullied by a professor. What does bullying mean when it comes to instructor-student dynamics? It can involve an instructor publicly disparaging a student's ability or character, making obscene gestures at them, calling the student by an offensive nickname, or even telling lies that damage the student's reputation or social standing. Some professors might refuse to hand back graded assignments and then encourage a student to drop the class because they will probably fail anyway.

Is bullying abuse? Most certainly. But there are things you can do to deal with it. It's also important to know that bullying may cross over into legal harassment when it is based on a person's color, sex, religion, race, disability, or national origin. In such cases, there are specific protections under federal civil rights or anti-discrimination laws.

Types of Bullying

Bullying in CollegeBullying behavior can take many forms. Here are six common ones:

1. Physical bullying

This is the type of bullying that most people think of first, but it is actually the least common form among college-age adults. It occurs when someone uses physical actions to intimidate, dominate, or control another person. Physical bullying often involves hitting, kicking, slapping, or paddling. It can also involve stealing or damaging someone's possessions. It figures prominently in some hazing rituals.

If you're a smaller person and the people in your dorm continually band together to push and shove you and taunt you by telling you to hit back, you are being physically bullied.

2. Verbal bullying

Verbal bullying happens when someone uses words to belittle or demean another person and assert dominance over them. Repeated name-calling, threats, insults, bigoted remarks, and sexually suggestive comments can all qualify as verbal bullying. Research has found this to be one of the most common types of bullying at the college level.

3. Social bullying

This is also known as relational or emotional bullying. So, what is social bullying? It involves excluding a person from a particular group or damaging a person's social standing. Social bullies try to boost their own status by undermining someone else's. They manipulate social situations, spread gossip and rumors, and encourage other people to turn against that person. Such behavior is often perpetrated by a group of friends against an outsider.

4. Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying or online bullying is when communication technology is used to threaten, embarrass, or harm another person. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying provides perpetrators with anonymity and allows them to be cruel while remaining detached from the situation. Cyberbullies might send threatening or offensive texts or emails, create websites focused on insulting someone, post humiliating photos of a person, or reveal sensitive information about them online, or hack into a person's social media accounts to pose as them and wreak havoc. Notably, cyberbullies don't need to repeat the behavior for it to have lasting and long-term effects; one click can enable an offending message or photo to go viral and take on a life of its own.

A famous case of cyberbullying involved Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student whose roommate used a webcam to secretly capture Clementi performing an intimate act with another man. The roommate invited other students to watch the online broadcast and later posted about it on his Twitter feed. After discovering what his roommate had done and finding out that a second attempt to invade his privacy was planned, Clementi took his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

One survey of college students found that 22 percent had endured some form of cyberbullying, and 38 percent knew someone who had gone through such an experience.

Online bullying can be especially insidious because the targeted person can be tormented at any time, and they may not have any idea who the perpetrator is.

5. Sexual bullying

Repeated actions that are meant to humiliate or demean a person sexually can be termed sexual bullying. Perpetrators frequently attack a person's attractiveness, sexual orientation, or sexual activity. Bullies might text inappropriate messages or pictures, make insulting comments about someone's body either in person or online, or partake in so-called "slut-shaming" (i.e., denigrating someone for their sexual behavior). Sometimes, sexual bullying can occur when a relationship ends and one partner shares private sexting examples or explicit photos of their ex with a group of friends as a way of getting back at the ex.

In some cases, this type of bullying can be considered sexual harassment or gender-based harassment and may therefore be actionable under federal law.

6. Hazing

Hazing is a systematic process of inflicting humiliation on a student as a "rite of passage." Brian Van Brunt of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association believes hazing can be a form of bullying, even though students normally subject themselves to it voluntarily in order to become part of a group or organization. Most bullying is designed to exclude people, but hazing is about having people earn the right to be accepted into a group. This phenomenon isn't limited to fraternities and sororities; it can happen with athletic teams, recreational clubs, honor societies, and other types of organizations.

In one survey, 55 percent of college students said they had experienced hazing as part of their initiation into a campus organization, club, or team. Commonly, hazing rituals involve drinking vast amounts of alcohol, being humiliated and screamed at by club members, and even being forced to perform sex acts. You should know that the vast majority of states have anti-hazing laws in place, and some even designate it as a possible felony if it causes a person to suffer serious bodily harm.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone can experience bullying, but some factors make certain students more likely to be targeted. Bullies often focus on those who are different in some way. For example, targets of bullies might dress differently, be overweight, indulge in unpopular hobbies, be socially awkward, or have a disability. Other targets might be perceived as being too smart or too favored by an instructor. Students may also be targeted because of their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious beliefs. Sometimes bullying can arise from simple jealousy or disagreements among classmates or roommates.

It's important to understand that some victims of bullying take on the role of aggressor and become bullies themselves. (They are known as bully-victims.) For example, a group of LGBTQ students who have been victimized might join forces to bully a person who has criticized or spoken out in opposition to gender-identity causes. So it's possible for the same person to be both a bully and a victim, depending on the situation.

What Does Bullying Cause?

The effects of bullying can be severe. There can be long-lasting impacts on the well-being of victims as well as bullies. Even bystanders who witness bullying but don't actually participate in it can experience feelings of fear and anxiety.

College students who are bullied often feel angry, helpless, lonely, frustrated, and isolated. They may have trouble sleeping or experience changes in their appetites. To escape the bullying, they might start skipping classes or avoiding social situations. The stress that results from being bullied can also cause physical issues like stomach aches, headaches, and ulcers.

In addition, bullying can lead to:

Bullying in College
  • Low self-esteem: Bullied people may start to internalize the negative messages and begin believing the hurtful things that are said about them. Over time, their ability to see themselves as capable individuals who are worthy of respect diminishes. Some respond by trying to change their appearance or personality in an attempt to make the bullying stop. However, such actions rarely satisfy bullies, and the victims also suffer from pretending to be something they are not.
  • Anxiety and depression: The demoralizing effects of ongoing bullying can erode a person's happiness and leave them in a constant state of anxiety. This can be especially pronounced with cyberbullying since the torment can happen at any time. A study of female college students found that those who experienced cyberbullying were almost three times more likely to suffer from depression than those who had not been bullied online. In particular, those who received unwelcome sexual advances through electronic means were six times more likely to meet the criteria for clinical depression.
  • Learned helplessness: As bullying continues unabated over time, victims can become conditioned to their suffering and start to believe that they have no control over what happens to them. They feel powerless to change their situation, so they give up trying. This can have a major effect on their ability to persist or persevere in any difficult situation.
  • Difficulties with social relationships: People who are bullied often struggle to trust people. They might question who their true friends are and wonder who will be next to betray them. In some cases, bullied people shut down emotionally and alienate the people who care about them because they don't want to risk being made to feel worse. Thus, they have a hard time maintaining friendships and intimate relationships.
  • Alcohol or drug use: Some people who experience bullying turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to escape their torment. Research has shown that being bullied at school makes college students more likely to both drink to excess and partake in binge drinking. And it's not just the targeted victims who turn to chemicals for relief: The study of female college students also found that girls who engaged in bullying others online were significantly more likely to have problems with alcohol use.
  • Violence: It's important to note that being bullied does not necessarily mean someone will commit violent acts. However, it can combine with other factors to increase the risk of such an event. One study of high school students found that victims of bullying who were threatened at school, had skipped school out of fear for their safety, or had been involved in a fight at school were much more likely to carry guns, clubs, or knives to school.
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts: Bullying is one of many stressors that can combine to generate overwhelming feelings of helplessness and lead to some very dark places. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that students who are involved in bullying, either as a victim or as a bully, have a higher risk of engaging in suicide-related behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk is especially high for students who bully others and are bullied themselves. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

How to Stop Bullying: Strategies for Victims, Bystanders, and Parents

Whether you are the target of bullying, have seen it happen to someone else, or are concerned that it's happening to your son or daughter, there are concrete steps you can and should take to make it stop. Find out what to do if you:

What to do if you are being bullied

Bullying in CollegeBy the time they get to college, many people figure they shouldn't have to learn how to deal with bullies at school. But as noted above, the sad reality is that bullying doesn't necessarily end at high school graduation. Here's what you can do to fight bullying in college:

1. Understand that it's not your fault.

There's no need to be embarrassed about being picked on; you likely haven't done anything wrong. Do not blame yourself. Bullies are often insecure people who need to feel superior by feeding off of those they see as defenseless. Try not to let the bully convince you that what they are saying about you is true. And don't feel like you need to change yourself into a person that you think the bully will accept. It's important to be who you truly are and focus on what makes you happy.

2. Don't retaliate.

No one ever wins a revenge battle. Responding aggressively won't make your situation any better, and it could even land you in bigger trouble. Bullies are trying to provoke a reaction from you, so don't give them the satisfaction. If they see they are getting to you, they will keep up their antics.

So, if you want to learn how to confront a bully, put on a brave face (even if you have to fake it) and don't cower or get upset, at least when the bully is around. Confidently stand your ground without yelling. Don't give in to the urge to use physical force, since you can never be sure how the bully will respond. If just walking away is not an option, try using a bit of humor to defuse the situation. Never show off or try to make a bully feel jealous or weak; that can cause them to become even more aggressive. However, staying cool and calm will take away a bully's power.

3. Document your experiences.

For each incident, write down exactly what happened and when, and be sure to note if there were any witnesses. Save emails, texts, or photos, and take screenshots of websites or social media posts. Print them out if you can. You'll need these as evidence if things escalate to the point that you decide to go to the school administration or the police.

4. Tell someone.

It's extremely important to get support so that you don't feel isolated. If you keep the bullying a secret, you give the bullies additional power. Once they see that you're too ashamed to talk about your experience, they'll know they can keep doing what they're doing.

So talk to someone about what you're going through. That could be your parents, a friend, your residential advisor, a counselor, a coach, or a peer mentoring group. They can help you find and connect with resources for further support. Just letting someone else know what is going on will keep you from feeling powerless and alone.

5. Take cyber cover.

Learning how to handle cyberbullying starts with getting to know the policies for each app or social media site that you use. Most sites take the issue of online bullying very seriously. You should be able to adjust your privacy settings and report or block the person who is bothering you. You might even want to consider shutting down your accounts for a while. Don't respond to (or forward) hurtful posts or messages; that will only add fuel to the fire and result in more conflict.

If you're being bullied by text message, find out how to block the offending number. This is a fairly simple process on an iPhone: In the Settings menu, choose Phone, then Call Blocking & Identification, and finally Block Contact. Alternatively, if the number is not one of your listed contacts, go to the Recents section of the Phone app, select the small "i" icon beside the number, and choose Block This Caller.

For Android devices, the specific blocking method varies depending on the manufacturer. You might also consider using free third-party Android apps like Mr. Number, Call Blocker Free—Blacklist, or Calls Blacklist—Call Blocker.

Another option is to contact your phone service provider to block the bullying number or even get a new number for yourself.

6. Report the situation.

Many students are embarrassed about being bullied and feel that now that they are in college, they should be able to handle these things alone. However, it's critical to report all bullying incidents in order to end the aggression.

Review your school's code of conduct to see if what you are experiencing violates campus policies. (If the behavior qualifies as sexual harassment under federal law, you should reach out to your school's Title IX coordinator.) Then contact a school administrator, ombudsperson, or the dean of students about your concerns and request a meeting so that you can come up with a plan to deal with the situation. At the meeting, make it clear that you wish to be protected from retaliation or further bullying. So, for instance, if you know or suspect that it's your roommate who is bullying you, ask to be moved to a new room before school officials talk to your roommate. Officials should also be able to advise you about getting restraining orders if such measures are necessary.

You should report the bullying even if it's happening online and you don't actually know who the perpetrator is. In some cases, IT professionals and campus security forces can work together to determine who is behind it.

If you're being bullied on social media, notify the sites so that they can review the offending content to see if it violates their terms of service.

7. Call the police (if necessary).

If you have been physically threatened, are being stalked, have received sexually explicit photos or messages, or are fearful for your overall safety, contact law enforcement immediately.

What to do if you witness bullying

If you want to stop bullying, speak up. Many times, bystanders are reluctant to intervene because they are unsure of what to do or afraid that the bully will turn on them. Those who observe the bullying but do nothing might also believe that they have no personal responsibility to act or that their actions won't make any difference. The truth, however, is that bystanders have a key role to play in stopping the aggression. If you see someone being bullied, here are a few things you can do:

  • Don't enable the bully. That means more than just not saying anything. If you laugh at the targeted person, share negative gossip online, or otherwise give the bully the audience they crave, you compound the problem. Research has shown that instances of verbal bullying are much more likely to turn violent when there are people standing by watching. So, if you witness in-person bullying, say something like, "This is messed up," and make it clear to everyone around you that the behavior is wrong, and you should all do something to stop bullying now. It takes guts to be the first one to step up, but your actions may encourage other bystanders to do the same.
  • Confront the bully. If you feel safe enough to do so, stand beside the person who is being bullied, look directly at the bully, and tell them to lay off. Be confident and calm. Don't raise your voice or make accusations; you want to deescalate the situation by letting the bully save face and avoid humiliation. Then walk away with the victim.
  • Let the victim know you support them. Even if you don't confront the bully directly, you can try to defuse tension by complimenting the victim in some way or starting up a conversation with them. Send the person a friendly text message indicating that you're there for them. A small act of kindness can go a long way toward helping a bullied person feel less humiliated.
  • Gather evidence. Record a video of in-person encounters or take screenshots of bullying comments on social media or other websites. Make notes about what you saw or heard, when and where the event occurred, and who else was there.
  • Tell an authority figure about it. Many cases of bullying come down to one person's word against another's, so it can be immensely helpful for a victim to have input from additional sources. If you can corroborate the person's account, officials will have a clearer picture of what happened and be more likely to take steps to deal with it.

You might also want to consider getting involved in a bystander intervention program, which is becoming a popular way of combating bullying in college. Such programs work by enlisting community members to recognize and address harmful or negative behaviors. They're designed to reduce violence on college campuses by training bystanders to take proactive steps to defuse tension and head off potential aggression. Here are a few examples:

What to do if you are the parent of a student being bullied

First and foremost, keep the lines of communication open. Always remember that it takes an incredible amount of courage for a college student to share such an experience with their parents. Most students who are the targets of bullying find it so humiliating and painful that they are extremely reluctant to talk about it. By the time they do say something, they have likely been dealing with the issue for a long time and are feeling quite demoralized. So if your child opens up to you, the most important thing you can do is listen.

When speaking with your child, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don't interrupt, criticize, or ask what they did to provoke the bully. You need to offer support and comfort without being judgmental.
  • Don't write it off as not a big deal. As noted above, bullying can have serious consequences, and it has probably escalated for some time before you hear about it.
  • Do assure your child that it is not their fault. The bullying is not really about them; it's about the bully's need for power and control.
  • Do emphasize that you are on your child's side. Your role is to bolster their confidence.

Next, document the details of each bullying incident (if your child hasn't already done so). Remember to focus on facts and try to keep emotion out of it. Be sure to find out if there are any other students who may have witnessed the bullying and could provide another perspective. And research applicable laws and policies in your area to see what applies to your situation.

Finally, encourage your child to report the bullying to the college as soon as possible. If you're able to do so, offer to accompany your child when they speak to administration. Together, you can find out what steps the college will take to investigate the problem and protect your child from further bullying. Keep in mind that you may have to report the issue to more than one person before you get appropriate action. Don't give up.

Bullying in CollegeA variety of regulations apply to bullying at both the federal and state levels.

Federal laws

At the federal level, there is no law that specifically addresses bullying. However, in some cases, bullying that is based on a protected class (i.e., a person's color, race, national origin, religion, sex, or disability) qualifies as discriminatory harassment under federal legislation.

All schools that receive federal money must take steps to address conduct that is severe enough to create a hostile environment for students in a protected class. (That means conduct that disrupts a protected student's abilities to benefit from the services offered by a college.) Schools have an obligation to act even if they don't actually receive a complaint; they are required to take steps to address any harassment that educators or administrators should reasonably be aware of.

Examples of relevant legislation include:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans any college or school that receives federal funds from discriminating against students on the basis of color, race, or national origin.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) make it unlawful for federally funded programs to discriminate against people with disabilities.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions and programs, including internships and School-to-Work programs. Even if only one activity or program at a college benefits from federal funding, the entire college is covered by Title IX. (However, military training schools are exempt, and private religious colleges that claim parts of the rules are inconsistent with their faiths can receive exemptions.)

Note that sexual harassment is a prohibited form of discrimination under Title IX. Harassment based on sexual orientation is not specifically covered, but if you are bullied because you do not conform to stereotyped ideas of masculine or feminine behavior, you may be able to seek damages under Title IX.

Every college and university that receives federal funds must have a Title IX coordinator whose role is to ensure that the school complies with the legislation. So if you have experienced what you believe is sexual harassment or gender-based bullying, contact your school's designated coordinator.

You should be aware that Title IX is in the midst of significant uncertainty. In 2015, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights affirmed that Title IX prohibited schools from discriminating on the basis of gender identity. In 2016, the department issued a Dear Colleague letter (i.e., a letter that announces a change in policy implementation) which stated that Title IX also prohibited discrimination against transgender students.

However, in 2017, the department issued another Dear Colleague letter rescinding the guidelines which held that Title IX applied to gender-identity-based discrimination. In May 2018, a federal court in the Gavin Grimm case held that Title IX does protect transgender students from discrimination. As of October 2018, the department is in the process of drafting new comprehensive regulations for the implementation of Title IX, which could result in more legal challenges.

State laws

If you are being bullied and you are not a member of one of the protected classes, you may not have a remedy under federal law. However, state laws may offer some recourse.

Every state has a law or model policy that applies to bullying, although the specifics vary greatly from state to state. In fact, no two states even use the same definition of what constitutes bullying. For instance, according to state laws, in New Jersey bullying can be a single incident, whereas Nebraska requires a pattern of incidents. A few states leave it to the state education department to come up with a definition, while others delegate it to local school districts. To add to the confusion, the definitions used by the states do not necessarily jive with the definitions used by anti-bullying programs.

Many states outline disciplinary consequences for students who bully others. Such consequences can include suspension, expulsion, or mandatory transfer to another school. In addition, a range of state laws provide criminal penalties for behaviors that can qualify as bullying, such as stalking, intimidation, harassment, and assault.

Be sure to research the bullying-related regulations that apply in your state.

Anti-Bullying Resources

If you or someone close to you is having suicidal thoughts, contact one of the following immediately:

Anti-bullying organizations

Anti-bullying websites

  • Features information from U.S. government agencies on how you can deal with and prevent bullying
  • Bystander Revolution: Offers hundreds of videos containing practical tips for what individuals can do to end bullying and change the overall culture
  • Cyberbullying Research Center: Offers research and reference materials for anyone dealing with online bullying

Find Your Way Forward

Bullying in college can have a big impact on your educational experience. But it's important to remember that you do have options. Sometimes a change of environment can be a good move. For instance, have you considered the many benefits of technical schools or vocational colleges? Check out some of the options near you by typing your zip code into the following search tool!