Most of the risk factors around bullying come down to being different from one’s peers. However with better awareness around bullying, we can change this.

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Bullying describes any type of repetitive and aggressive behavior that purposely intimidates or hurts another person. Bullying can be physical or verbal and can include many different types of behaviors, both in-person and online.

Studies have found that there are multiple factors that increase the risk of bullying — as a victim or a bully. According to research, everything from physical differences to financial difficulties at home can increase the risk of someone being bullied by their peers.

Ahead, we’ll explore some of the most significant risk factors for bullying and share resources on how to get help if you or someone you know is a victim of bullying.

Bullying can affect anyone, from any background, and there’s no single factor for becoming a bully or someone who is bullied. However, research suggests that several risk factors can increase the risk of someone being bullied.

Some of these risk factors for bullying might include:

  • being part of a racial, ethnic, gender, or sexuality minority
  • being otherwise “different” from one’s peers
  • having a lower self-esteem
  • having depression or anxiety
  • struggling to socialize with others
  • having an intellectual or developmental disability
  • having a lower socioeconomic background
  • experiencing adversity in childhood

While this isn’t an extensive list of every factor that contributes to bullying, researchers have found that these factors have the most significant impact on bullying risk.

Some groups of people are at a higher risk of bullying — whether that’s as a victim, as a bully, or as both. And while there’s not necessarily “one” factor that determines this risk, here’s what we do know about the main risk factors that can contribute to bullying risk.

Differences in self-expression

Research has found that one of the biggest factors that impact bullying risk is whether someone is perceived as being “different” from those around them. Some of these personal differences can include:

  • Appearance: Differences in physical appearance are the number one cause of childhood bullying.
  • Race or ethnicity: Differences in race and ethnicity are the second most common cause of bullying.
  • Gender: Boys experience more physical bullying, while girls experience more verbal bullying.
  • Gender expression: Gender nonconforming folks — including trans folks — experience more bullying.
  • Age: Bullying risk decreases with age, except for cyberbullying, which is more likely to affect older children.
  • Body weight: People with a higher body weight or who have weight dissatisfaction experience more bullying.
  • Sexuality: Children who identify as LGBTQIA+ are at a higher risk of experiencing bullying.

Mental health conditions

Studies show a complex relationship between mental health and bullying. On one hand, bullying increases the risk of mental health conditions — and on the other hand, some mental health conditions can increase the risk of bullying.

A 2015 study explored the relationship between loneliness, social anxiety, and bullying in adolescents. Study results found that mental health problems like social and emotional loneliness and social anxiety were associated with an increased risk of being a victim of bullying.

A more recent review from 2019 found that bullying behaviors in adolescents can significantly increase the risk of developing conditions like social anxiety.

Intellectual or developmental disabilities

Studies have also found that having a disability — whether physical, developmental, or otherwise — can increase someone’s risk of bullying.

For example, a 2022 study explored the various factors associated with bullying in children and adolescents with ADHD. Results of the study found that 46.9% of participants surveyed reported being victims of bullying, while 16.2% reported being bullies.

Lower socioeconomic background

Research has shown that having a lower socioeconomic background and experiencing financial difficulties, especially in childhood, can increase the risk of being bullied.

One meta-analysis from 2014, which included 28 studies on school bullying, explored the potential link between socioeconomic status and bullying. The results of the study found that victims of bullying, and bully/victims, were more likely to come from a lower socioeconomic background.

Adverse childhood experiences

Research also suggests that adversity in childhood, such as experiencing conflict or violence at home, increases the risk of becoming a bullying victim.

For example, in a 2019 study, researchers explain that factors like neighborhood violence, home conflict, and even intergenerational trauma create adverse environments. These environments, which disproportionately affect minority communities, can increase the risk of bullying.

How to get support for bullying

Whether you’re a teenager or an adult who is being bullied, know that you’re not alone — and there are steps you can take to address these behaviors and get support.

One of those steps is to document everything that’s been happening and report it to the appropriate people. At school, this might be a teacher or principal, while at work, this might include a supervisor or boss.

Depending on the type of bullying that’s happening, there are regulations and laws in place that can protect you from these types of behaviors.

And if you’re looking for more resources on how to recognize and address bullying, here are a few to check out:

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Around 20% of students in any given year are victims of bullying, according to statistics.

While there’s no one factor that puts someone at risk of bullying, research has shown that multiple factors can increase bullying risk, both for victims and bullies alike. Most of these factors center on being different from one’s peers in some way.

If you or someone you love is a victim of bullying, reach out to someone trusted and share what’s going on. Together, you can document and report these behaviors to the appropriate people and get the support you need.