Bullying: Causes, Targets, & Risk Factors

7 Minute Or Less Read Time
Bullying: Causes, Targets, & Risk Factors

Despite bullying research claiming the complexity and lack of singular causes of this violence in children, if you look at the facts below you can begin to see a pattern emerging.

The Facts About Bullying

Bullying is a complex issue that affects people of all ages and backgrounds. It can take many forms, including physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. While there is no single cause of bullying, there are several factors that can contribute to it.

Causes of Bullying

Some common reasons why people bully include emotional trauma, insecurity, and a desire for social status or power. Sometimes, people who have been bullied themselves may also become bullies.

Psychological deficiencies: According to Britannica, research suggests that bullying is caused by psychological deficiencies, which are triggered by exposure to aggression and conflict. These deficiencies can include a lack of empathy, poor impulse control, and a tendency to view others as objects rather than people. Children who experience these deficiencies may be more likely to bully others as a way of coping with their own feelings of inadequacy or insecurity.

Environmental factors: Several environmental factors can predispose a child to bullying, including neglect, dysfunctional family units, authoritarian parenting styles, abusive home life, and poor academic performance. These factors can create an environment in which children feel powerless and out of control, leading them to seek power and control over others through bullying.

Social status: Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection notes that bullying can be motivated by a desire for social status or power. Children who feel socially isolated or marginalized may use bullying as a way of gaining social status or asserting their dominance over others.

Emotional trauma: Emotional trauma is another common reason why people bully, according to your initial list. Children who have experienced emotional trauma such as abuse or neglect may use bullying as a way of coping with their own feelings of pain and powerlessness.

Bullying victimization: As mentioned earlier, people who have been bullied themselves may also become bullies. This can happen when children internalize the negative messages they receive from bullies and begin to believe that they are weak or powerless. In an effort to regain their sense of power and control, they may turn to bullying others.

Targets of Bullying

There is no single factor that puts a child at risk of being bullied. However, some groups may be at an increased risk of being bullied, such as LGBTQ youth, youth with disabilities, and socially isolated youth. Children who are perceived as different from their peers may also be at risk of being bullied.

Children who are more likely to bully others can be well-connected to their peers and have social power or be more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious. Children who are aggressive or easily frustrated, have less parental involvement or issues at home, think badly of others, have difficulty following rules, view violence in a positive way or have friends who bully others may also be more likely to bully others.

Factors that Influence Bullying

Several factors can influence bullying, including religion and socioeconomic status.


Religion can play a factor in bullying. Bullying because of religion is a type of identity-based bullying, where youth are bullied because of something specific to their identity, like their religion. This type of bullying can take a deeper emotional and psychological toll than bullying based on non-identity-related factors.

Research has shown that students of various faiths can be bullied at school relatively equally, but when it comes to cyberbullying, more Muslim youth said they were targeted than those of other faiths. Religious bullying can occur across religious groups, within religious groups, or between those who are religious and those who have no religious affiliation.

Socio-Economic Status

Socioeconomic status can play a role in bullying. Research has shown that children and teenagers from low-income families are more likely to be bullied than others. Schools with the largest economic inequality had the highest rates of bullying.

Low socio-economic status, particularly living in poverty, is a risk factor for violence exposure in low-income communities and the schools that are embedded within them. Impoverished youth are significantly more likely to be exposed to peer violence and bullying victimization in school and are also likely to identify with a culture of violence.

Studies indicate that there’s only a slight correlation between socioeconomic status and the likelihood of becoming a bully. It’s only marginally more probable for bullies to originate from middle or lower socioeconomic backgrounds. However, it’s more common for both victims and bullies to come from less affluent families.


Bullying is a complex issue with many contributing factors, due to schools forming microcosms of society. However, this circumstance fades into adult racism and prejudice, evidenced by the aforementioned factors and causes. The seeming lack of cause for bullying obscures the fact that the bullied have some differences such as religion or disadvantages such as poverty. These facts reflect bullying as a means of oppression, which in K-12, exists in the form of popularity: a form of privilege. Kids part of the dominant race, or in segregated schools part of the more affluent populations, along with religion, (in the US, Christianity), are taught their privilege or lack thereof in society through bullying.

Racism, classism, and religious domination are bullying, explaining why this problem continues to plague society.

Bullying as Deviant Behavior & Group Norms

The Difficulty Defining Bullying as Deviant Behavior

Defining bullying as deviant behavior seems appropriate, but this classification defies the reality that bullying is often inspired, performed, allowed, or ignored by adults. For this reason, bullying persists as a problem today because the causes of bullying are never addressed.

Deviant behavior departs from accepted social or cultural standards, which presents the inherent relativistic nature of judging or classifying deviant behavior. For example, in many religious communities, premarital sex is deviant behavior but for those individuals living outside these communities, this does not qualify as deviance. The obvious problem in a pluralistic society is the conflict of morality that arises between groups. However, this problem is further complicated by degrees of deviance.

Acceptable behavior can be seen as either normal or deviant depending upon the group norms and morals but also the severity of the deviance changes depending on the group in question. For example, stealing is generally considered a universal crime throughout the world but what is not universal is the treatment of this crime. In the United States, punishment for stealing ranges from a proverbial slap on the wrist to jail time. In Saudi Arabia, the punishment for thievery might be limb amputation or even decapitation. Some Islamic nations deem this practice as correct or normal but in Western culture, this form of punishment is viewed as extreme, inappropriate, or deviant based on cultural beliefs. Examples such as this provide evidence of the relativistic nature of deviant behavior despite specific behaviors such as stealing having universal status.

Deviant behavior complicates further in the context of group norms which can alter the perspective of deviant behavior further in the group context. For example, criminal enterprises while considered deviant by their nature and purpose, e.g., elicit, have many group norms that guide behavior. Gangs and mafias have norms such as showing respect or being loyal and these norms allow the group to operate cohesively. Deviation from these group norms carries varying degrees of reprisal such as threats but more serious violations of mores or laws can result in deadly punishment. As such group norms can exist within deviant groups, revealing also deviance exists in non-deviant groups.

It is entirely possible for legal, socially acceptable groups to commit deviant acts. This often takes the form of corruption such as corporate management colluding in unethical behavior. Enron provides one of the best examples of this form of deviance, in which billions of investor dollars were lost due to fraud.

Deviance and its relation to group norms have given rise to several possible theories concerning deviance's causes including:

Anomie: Deviance is caused by anomie, or the feeling that society’s goals or the means to achieve them are closed

Control: Deviance exists because of improper socialization, which results in a lack of self-control

Differential association: People learn deviance from associating with others who act in deviant ways

Labeling: Deviant behavior depends on who is defining it, and the people in society who define deviance: usually those in positions of power.

Theories abound but no single theory explains deviance likely due to more complex factors, making bullying an extremely difficult problem in that context. If bullying is a result of prejudices and biases instilled in children, then bullying is less of a deviance than an acceptable form of socialization. To truly consider bullying as a deviant behavior the issue needs to be considered a crime and enforced with penalties to reflect the severity of the issue.

Sadly, dominant groups, the culprits in bullying, actually create biases to deter punishment. For instance, deviance often manifests in disenfranchised groups because of limited opportunities or as a means of gaining control, and in accordance with this deviation, adults view bullying as a broken-home problem, bad parenting, or a delinquent issue. While some poor kids and children of broken homes might become bullies, the popular, rich, and dominant racial groups are rarely considered part of the issue. Ignoring this factor creates a worse problem. Children with behavioral issues are now at fault for their circumstances and are either pushed into bullying or blamed for being victimized. As such, society contributes to the proliferation of bullying and deviant behavior through oppression, racism, prejudices, bullying, and many other actions that unjustifiably exclude members of society.

Just Weighing Separator

Photo by Morgan Basham on Unsplash

Photo by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash

Bullies, Bigots, & Other Bastards Bullying: Six Faces Of Evil