Covert Bullying

Covert bullying or social aggression is often overlooked when discussing bullying behaviour but might affect many more people.

The issues I am concerned with are:

  • What behaviours does covert bullying include,
  • What are the factors contributing to covert bullying; and
  • How can we mitigate the risk factors and prevent covert bullying?

At some stage, bullying has affected ourselves, our kids or someone else we care about – child or adult. The most recognisable kind involves physical aggression and name calling. It is easy to recognise and schools come down hard on it. Social aggression is a completely different matter and it involves a lot more than snarkiness.

Trying to nail down what Covert Bullying is

Some Specifics

Like any intractable issue, it has many names among professional educators and psychologists: Relational Aggression or violence, Social Aggression, Emotional Violence, Passive-Aggressive behaviour.

The specific behaviours include the following:

  • anonymous prank phone calls or harassing emails from dummy accounts;
  • playing jokes or tricks designed to embarrass and humiliate;
  • deliberate exclusion of other kids for no real reason;
  • whispering in front of other kids with the intent to make them feel left out;
  • name calling, rumour spreading and other malicious verbal interactions;
  • being friends one week and then turning against a peer the next week with no; incident or reason for the alienation;
  • encouraging other kids to ignore or pick on a specific child;
  • inciting others to act out violently or aggressively.

(List by Mike Hardcastle on LiveAbout)

We can sum up the bullying arsenal with the terms Alienation, Ostracism, Exclusion and Rumours. Kids exert control over other kids through creating group dynamics from alliances. The alliance may be between social groups or just with the silent majority who do not react to the bullying behaviour. They create a popularity contest and a jockeying for position in the social groups to the exclusion of some.

Covert bullying is often associated with girls and much of the research and books focus on girls. Let’s not forget that girls also bully boys and boys are also perfectly capable of being sneaky and indirect about their bullying. When it concerns boys, it is more likely to be called passive-aggressive. I am couching my discussion without much reference to gender.For parents and teachers, the issue is to address the behaviour where they find it while recognising it may be harder to differentiate a group of girls just hanging out from one where they actively create discord, feelings of inadequacy and fear.

covert bullying and social aggression. Happy and kind looking female teacher in front of the blackboard.
Is your child’s teacher watching out for relational consequences among the children? Bullying affects among 10-20 percent of children in school from grade four.

Cover Bullying and Age

The Australian Government’s Covert Bullying Prevalence Study shows that covert bullying is already well established from grade four with the prevalence across all Australian states in the range of 10-20+ percent of surveyed kids (Table 5.8). This is aging material but there is little reason to assume the rates have changed dramatically.

The main thing to draw from this is that covert bullying starts very early. It is an issue before social media becomes a factor in the covert bullying scenario. Pamela Paul in the NewYork Times interviews a primary school principal:

One first grader was shunned because she didn’t have the “in” classroom supplies — sparkly glue and a Powerpuff Girls carrying case. She stopped going to school because her parents couldn’t afford them. “The other girls kept accusing her of stealing theirs, which wasn’t true.”

This story is so spot on for what a lot of parents experience: Queen Bee setting the standard for what is acceptable and enforcing it through embarrassment, humiliation and exclusion.

It becomes such an intractable issue because it is hard for parents to detect, parents are after all quite used to nagging kids and there is also a natural tendency to want to have what is popular and advertised on TV etc. A nagging, needy child does not raise the same concerns as one coming home with marks of physical violence, torn clothes, and broken things. If teachers are not onto negative relational consequences amongst the kids, it will be impossible to detect. If the child complains, then how do you go about it? The teacher can’t very well exclude the use of Powerpuff Girls stationary or whatever the case may be. The particulars of any incident will just be replicated across any number of other things in a random fashion anyway.

The particulars of any incident are often not the issue at hand at all as most bullying is about attitudes and as long as the attitudes are there, it will find expression.

The behaviour, however, has to be confronted because if it is “successful” the behaviour will entrench itself and continue. Confrontation gives a cost to the bully that lessens the payoff of perpetrating the behaviour.

Normal Formation of Peer Groups vs Bullying

Exclusion is an unfortunate part of the normal formation of peer groups. As adults, we know that we do not readily include everyone in our groups. There are some people we are more comfortable with and we have different groups of people we socialise with for different interests and occasions.

Kids have similar needs to delineate their groups according to interests and personality. When kids are in sharply defined groups according to age and they spend a number of hours together every day, the situation requires some attention to not reduce to a Lord of the Flies scenario. Small kids need appropriate authority and supervision. Developmentally, they do not have the social skills or the inclination to interact without friction or to reach out to their natural peers in that group. This is what we as parents or the teachers are here to provide.

To define the difference between acceptable group formation and bullying is simple: if the dynamic is causing feelings of fear or inadequacy, it is bullying and should be dealt with.

Motive and Behaviour

Bullying tends to be rooted in attitudes and the effect on the victim is intended, however, it is worth noting that there is no need to actually mount some evidential proof of a bad attitude – the effect on the victim is what parents and teachers should focus on and seek to remedy. What must be addressed is the behaviour that is causing the distress.

Whether or not a child is able to predict the effect in the victim is only relevant to that child’s ability to remedy and control his or her behaviour for the future without adult intervention or guidance. Empathy and insightfulness may not be equally distributed and young children may lack insight into the effect of, for example, only playing with their “best friend”.

In the end parents and teachers have to address the behaviour. Allocation of blame and the attitudes of perpetrators are only secondary. The victim will be much assisted by the behaviours stopping. No one can make kids good friends but addressing behaviour recognises the victim as such and is thus affirming that child instead of ignoring the child experiencing problems. Even repeated interventions are better than putting it in the too hard basket or passing over it as schoolyard tiffs, part of growing up etc.

Monkey see Monkey do

We all know that kids quickly pick up on attitudes and language use, whether it is from TV shows, home environment, school and other social contexts. This is often referred to as the “trickle-down” effect. Studies have shown how kids are affected by TV shows. Teenage girls who watch shows where the protagonist is a Power-Girl with attitude also show such attitude towards others. In the context of bullying, take note of how many skits and comedy shows rely on making fun of other people. It is a recipe for entrenching such values and behaviour in everyday life; a continuous, subliminal bombardment of young minds of how it is ok to behave towards others.

Nicole Martins, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University has conducted a study:

..linking aggressive behavior to shows with stars she deemed socially aggressive, like “Hannah Montanaand “The Simple Life.” “There was no effect on aggression on boys, but in girls, there was an increase among those who watched socially aggressive female models on TV,”

(New York Times, The playground gets tougher, 8 Oct 2010)

Covert bullying and social aggression in Hannah Montana. Smiling female star shown twice with show title typed in between.
Some research indicates that shows with socially aggressive females make girls feel social aggression is normal.

A 2011 Girls Scout online survey (in America) included the following observations:

All of the girls in our study feel that reality shows promote bad behavior. The vast majority think these shows “often pit girls against each other to make the shows more exciting” (86%), “make people think that fighting is a normal part of a romantic relationship” (73%), and “make people think it’s okay to treat others badly (70%).”

Regular reality TV viewers accept and expect a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying in their own lives as well. They are considerably more likely than non-viewers to agree that: • “Gossiping is a normal part of a relationship between girls” (78% vs. 54%); • “It’s in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive with one another” (68% vs. 50%); and • “It’s hard for me to trust other girls” (63% vs. 50%).


Preventing Bullying

Covert bullying, aggression and building social skills. Kids sitting together by the side of the road looking content.
Playtime contributes to physical, emotional and mental health. It is an avenue for social learning and a positive catalyst for positive socialisation. Play shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul.

The “trickle-up” effect

Some developmental psychologists have turned the traditional analysis of the “trickle-down’ effect on its head and talk about a “trickle-up” effect.

Covert aggression is about social skills, so you then have to ask – how do kids build social skills. Surely, as stated above, they learn from their social environment. The undue and excessive influence of such factors is because it finds vacant and fertile ground. When there is a lack of skills-sets, the child is more likely to model behaviour without any good discretionary ability.

Dr Stuart Brown talks about a play deficit. Many kids grow up with a play deficit – that is, they have an inordinate amount of screen time, scheduled activities and the rest of the time suffer from “helicopter parenting”.

Playtime contributes to physical, emotional and mental health. It is an avenue for social learning and a positive catalyst for positive socialisation. Play shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul in the words of Dr Brown. He is the founder of The National Institute for Play. Kids who have more play time have better language skills and social skills, including the ability to understand others; they have a better ability for empathy and imagination and also display better self-control. Apart from being linked to better future prospects, these qualities make for better ability to interact and thus less likelihood of both being bullied or becoming the perpetrator of bullying. It is an all-around remedy.

Three remedies for bullying

  1. Recess: let kids have free play-time during recess. Kids work hard and also need to recharge. This is also when they will learn to negotiate with other kids, learn to share, help others, get frank feedback, let the imagination run away with them. Little kids are not naturally social, they have to learn to be social and this is when they learn it.Consider the Finnish model, a schooling system leading the PISA league tables: they have recess after each lesson. Recess is strictly outdoor time for all seasons. Do they have problems with anti-social behaviour among students? Property damage etc. from kids having too much time on their hands? No, they do not.
  2. Limit screen time. Some screen time is ok and some games and tv shows can build skills, understanding and empathy. Boredom is not a bad thing in kids. This is when imagination has to kick in.
  3. Model behaviour: You can’t tell kids to go outside if you don’t go outside much yourself. They are not going to take you seriously or take it as a worthwhile endeavour when they do not observe you spending time outside or you spending time with them outside.Model the behaviour that you want to see in your kids in other respects as well: don’t swear at other drivers, make derogatory comments about random people etc. unless that is what you want them to do at school and with their friends. Remember, kids do not have the ability of discretion that you have built over several years. They pick up on emotion and attitude, not whether you may have addressed a dangerous situation, other people behaving badly etc.

Please feel free to make this a learning experience and contribute your opinions in the comments below.



Female Bullying – relational aggression amongst girls

Mike Hardcastle on the LiveAbout website
The Playground gets even tougher

Pamela Paul, New York Times, Oct 8, 2010

Study Reports

Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study, Ch. 5

Critical thinking in the age of Facebook and YouTube


Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls

Rachel Simmons

Queen Bees and Wannabes

Rosalind Wiseman


Little Girls Can Be Mean

Michelle Anthony M.A. Ph.D.

Reyna Lindert Ph.D.

Lise Copeland
Author: Lise Copeland

I like to write about current topics concerning young people, education and mental health. I developed this website to help other parents and it is used by several hundred people every week. I have two kids at University and one in high school. They have attended State, Catholic and Independent schools in three States and Territories as well as overseas, giving me lots of first hand experience of how different schools can contribute. Education: BA(Hons) with Philosophy, Latin and Ancient Greek languages and BA Law (LLB).

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