The confounding and problematic nexus of defined and perceived bullying

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Background: To assess the prevalence of bullying and identify victims in need of support, it is important that researchers, administrators, policy makers and people involved in bullying, all have the same conceptual understanding of bullying. It is not uncommon for individuals to perceive that they have been bullied when, according to the operational definition, they have not technically been bullied. Categorised according to the alignment of perceived and technical bullying, five peer aggression groups were examined for differences in the level of harm experienced. The importance of elements in the definition of bullying for perceived and technical bullying was also investigated. 

Methods: Using a cross-sectional survey design, 843 Australian students aged 11–16 completed the Student Aggression and Victimisation Questionnaire (SAVQ – Skrzypiec, 2015). The SAVQ measures the intent, harm, repetition, and relationship and power imbalance between victim and perpetrator, associated with experiences of peer aggression, as well as the perception of being bullied. It enables the identification of perceived and technical bullying experiences. 

Results: Only a small group of youth consistently perceived bullying when they were, by definition, being bullied. Approximately one in three students reported that, based on their perception of being bullied, they were bullied even though they were not according to the criteria defining bullying in the academic literature. Youth consistently reported experiencing harm, even if they were not technically bullied, though technically being bullied was perceived to be especially harmful. Similarly, students who did not recognise their experience of peer aggression as bullying when technically it was, also reported being harmed. 

Conclusions: This study addresses an important debate in the literature concerning how best to define bullying; moreover, findings have the potential to inform bullying interventions. Students harmed by peer aggression in any form (technically bullied or not) should not be neglected because of the nature of definitions and tools of measurement being used.

Original languageEnglish
Article number107175
Number of pages13
JournalChildren and Youth Services Review
Early online date23 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • Bullying definition
  • Harm
  • Peer aggression
  • Perception of bullying


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