College Bullying: An Exploratory Analysis


Most research on bullying focuses on the K-12 education system or the workplace, but few studies focus on higher education. Most colleges combine hazing, harassment, and bullying into one category, which makes a primary focus on bullying difficult. Researchers have identified four main types of bullying: physical, verbal, social, and cyber. For this study, bullying was operationally defined as occurring when someone uses their power, repeatedly, (such as strength, popularity, social status, computer skills, etc.) to injure, threaten, harass, or embarrass another person on purpose. The purpose of the current mixed-methods study is an exploratory analysis that examines the prevalence and characteristics of bullying at a small state university in the mid-Atlantic. A total of 171 students completed the survey asking questions about being a target, perpetrator and/or victim of bullying and the characteristics of those experiences. A group of questions focused on reporting bullying, and knowledge about the current bullying policy. Also, an open-ended question asked participants to write about a real incident in which they witness or were a victim of bullying. The results indicate that a majority (64.3%) of participants have witnessed bullying in some capacity since coming to college; only (28.7%) reported being the victim of bullying since coming to college. Participants reported verbal bullying the most, followed by social bullying. Approximately two-thirds of participants knew of the university’s existing bullying policy. The participants wrote narratives that varied between generic specific stories about bullying, and discussed all four types of bullying with verbal bullying being the most discussed. The current mixed-methods study sheds light on the fact that bullying at the university level does in fact occur, and more research needs to understand how to improve how universities and colleges deal with this problem.

Bullying in College:  An Exploratory Analysis

Although an increasing amount of research addresses bullying, most of the current research focuses on K-12 education and work place bullying; there remains a gap in the research concerning college bullying (Chapell et al., 2004; Duncan 2010).  In one exception, Chapell et al.’s (2004) study focuses on the prevalence of traditional bullying, and found that around 60% of students surveyed had witnessed bullying at college. However, this study did not focus on the specific types of bullying, and it was conducted almost ten years ago. Most of the current studies available on college bullying either address bullying very broadly, or focus on a particular type such as cyber bullying (Dilmac, 2009; Schenk & Fremouw, 2012), which has increased with the rise of technology and social media. Universities and colleges face a problem; most polices that prohibit such behavior combine bullying, harassment, and hazing into one category, which makes primary focus on bullying difficult. The current exploratory study aims to reveal the prevalence of bullying, types of bullying, and characteristics of bullying at a small state university in the Mid-Atlantic region. The current study also researches knowledge pertaining to bullying policy and reporting bullying. This mixed-methods study addresses the gaps in literature by differentiating the types of bullying, updating the literature on prevalence of bullying, and by investigating information about policy.

Definitions of bullying vary greatly; however, most researchers have come to accept Olweus’s (1999) definition with three components: (1) intentional and violent harm, (2) repeatedly occurring, and (3) there must be a power imbalance between the individuals or groups involved. Bullying is also broken down into four different types: physical, verbal, social, and cyber (Bullying, n.d.; Cornell, 2012).  Physical bullying involves doing some type of physical bodily harm, such as kicking, punching, shoving, or harm to possessions such as stealing or breaking. Verbal bullying involves name-calling, taunting, threatening, teasing, and/or insulting someone on purpose. Indirect bullying, also known as social or relational bullying, involves social aspects such as exclusion of a person or group on purpose, spreading rumors, ignoring, or excluding a person or group on purpose, and embarrassing someone in public (Bullying, n.d.; Cornell,2012).  Lastly, cyber bullying is the use of technology such as email, cell phones, or social media, to inflict harm on someone whether it be through teasing, spreading rumors, name calling, or insults (Schenk & Fremouw, 2012; Cornell, 2012).

Defining bullying becomes even more complicated in college because colleges often combine hazing, bullying, harassment, and incivility to one category (American Education Research Association (AERA, 2013).  Placing all of these terms under one umbrella is problematic because they are not interchangeable. For example, hazing is based on inclusion, while bullying is based on exclusion.  Specifically, people haze other people to make them earn their position in the group, whereas bullying occurs to make people feel excluded and alone (Hazing, n.d.). Most universities have strict policies against hazing, and 44 states have hazing laws that allow universities and colleges to take legal action against those who haze (State, n.d.).  However, there are no state laws against bullying in higher education, which makes it hard for universities and colleges to address bullying because they often have no legal standing (AERA, 2013; Duncan, 2010). Also, most universities require the victim to have documented threats of violence or proof that the bullying actually occurred, which many victims cannot obtain (AERA, 2013).

Few research studies investigate the prevalence rates the ‘traditional’ (physical, verbal, and indirect/social) types of bullying.  In a sample of 1,025 college students, Chapell et al. (2004) found that 60.9% of them have witnessed some type of bullying, and 24.6% had been victims of bullying at college.  Chapell et al. (2004) investigated status relationships of the perpetrator and victim of bullying. They found that 44.1% of students they surveyed witnessed a faculty member bully a student, and 19.2% have experienced being bullied by a faculty member.  Lastly, Chapell et al. (2004) found that 18.5% of students admitted to bullying another student in college. The results of this study indicate that bullying does occur in college. Chapell et al.’s (2006) study focused on the continuity of bullying, asking current college students about their experiences in elementary school, high school, and college. This study indicated that bullying declines with age, however, it never fully ceases.  Chapell et al. (2006) found that the roles of bullies and victims stayed fairly consistent throughout time.  Three-fourths of those who stated they were bullied in elementary school also reported being bullied in high school and college.

While there remains a large gap in literature addressing bullying in college, cyber bullying in college is currently getting some attention due to the increase use and availability of technology. Schenk and Fremouw (2012) questioned 799 college students and found that approximately 8.6% were victims of cyber bullying, providing evidence for the existence of cyber bullying at the college level. Schenk and Fremouw (2012) also investigated the negative impacts of cyber bullying, victims of cyber bullying were more likely to report suicide ideation, and attempted suicide than those who reported not being cyber bullied.  A study of Turkish university students identified gender differences in bullying; more females than males were victims of cyber bullying, but males engage in more cyber bullying than females (Dilmac, 2009)

The studies discussed in the current paper all indicate that bullying does it fact occur, and that it may even be fairly common (Chapell et al, 2004; Chapell et. al, 2006; Schenk & Fremouw, 2012). Schenk and Fremouw (2012) and Dilmac (2009), focus on cyber bullying, because it has become increasingly more popular with the rise in technology use. Bullying in college remains a problem that has yet to be systematically and nationally studied (AERA, 2013).  The current study adds to previous research by further addressing not only the rates at which bullying occurs in college, but the types of bullying through self-reported data. The current research examines characteristics of bullying such as the perpetrator of bullying, and location in which bullying occurs.  Also, this research investigates students’ knowledge on current policy, as well as students’ experiences of bullying at college.  No other studies, to the researcher’s knowledge, look directly at the experiences of bullying at the higher education level.  This is a mixed-methods exploratory analysis of bullying in college.



A total of 171 students (freshman = 50, sophomore = 22, junior = 30, senior = 64, other = 5) voluntarily participated in this research at a small state university in the Mid-Atlantic. This sample included 74.9% female (N = 124), 24.6% male (N = 42). The gender distribution closely represents the distribution at the university (male = 31%). Eighty-one percent were white (N = 139), 5.8% were Black / African American (N = 10), 3.5 % were Asian (N =6), 4.7 % were Hispanic (N =8), and 4.1% were other (N =7), this distribution also closely represent the 15% minority distribution at the university.   Out of the 171 participants, 94.7% identified themselves as heterosexual.

Materials and Procedures

Parts of the survey were adapted from several previously used bullying surveys including the School Climate Bullying Survey (Cornell, 2012), School Bullying Survey (Reed, n.d.), and the Anonymous School Bullying Survey (School, n.d.). The questionnaire started with basic demographic questions such as gender, race / ethnicity, sexual orientation, and year in school followed by both close-ended and open-ended questions about bullying.

Participants then answered questions about the prevalence of seeing and/or being bullied. These questions provided the overall prevalence of bullying and the prevalence of the different types of bullying.  Bullying was operationally defined as “when someone uses their power (such as strength, popularity, social status, computer skills, etc) to injure, threaten, harass, or embarrass another person on purpose.  Bullying happens repeatedly (not just one time) to one person or a group of persons.” The four types of bullying were operationally defined as: (1) Physical bullying involves causing bodily harm or possession damage to another person or group. This could involve hitting, kicking, punching, stealing possession or damaging one’s possessions.; (2) Verbal bullying involves repeated insults, threatening somebody, teasing, making fun of others, and calling someone derogatory names.; (3) Social bullying occurs when people intentionally try to damage someone’s reputation or social standing.  It can include ignoring or leaving someone out on purpose, encourage others to ignore, chastise or threaten someone, or by spreading rumors about a person around school.; (4) Cyber bullying occurs when people are teased, taunted, or threatened repeatedly through the use of email, phone, text messaging, social media, or other electronic methods.

Each definition of bullying was followed by questions about whether or not the participant has seen and/or been bullied since coming to college.  The participant responded with either “yes” or “no”.  If they responded “yes”, they then rated the frequency of seeing and /or being bullied (1-2x a semester, several times a semester, 1-2x a week, several times a week, daily).

Next participants answered questions about reporting bullying and bullying policy. One question asks whether or not the participant would report bullying if they saw it.  If they responded “yes”, they would report bullying, they listed to whom they would report. The researcher coded these questions. Examples included police, faculty, and resident advisors. Additional questions asked participants if the university had a policy regarding bullying (yes/no), and whether colleges and university should have polices against bullying (1 = strongly disagree through 7 = strongly agree).  One question asked the participants to rate whether bullying was a problem at the university on a Likert scale of one (strongly disagree) through seven (strongly agree). Questions regarding characteristics of bullying were asked such as location and perpetrator of bullying. Participants were allowed to give multiple answers to these questions. Lastly, at the end of the survey participants wrote about a real incident in which they witnessed or were victims of bullying since coming to college.


The researcher recruited participants in three different ways.  Most of the participants completed the survey online through Survey Monkey. Some of these participants signed up through an online sign-up system within the psychology department (N = 99), and had the opportunity to receive one extra credit point towards a psychology class of their choice.  Other participants that used Survey Monkey were recruited through sociology and English classes (N = 41) at the university, in which the instructor emailed the students a link to the Survey Monkey questionnaire. Lastly, one English instructor allowed the researcher to visit their regularly scheduled classes, and hand out paper surveys to their students (N = 31). All students were required to sign a consent form (either online on Survey Monkey or in paper form), and read or listen to a debriefing statement.



In the overall sample (N = 171), 64.3% (N = 110) of students have witnessed bullying while in college.  Of those students, most (42.3%) witness bullying several times a semester, see Table 2 for all frequency data. Fewer participants report having been bullied since coming to college, results show that only 28.7%  state they have been bullied, with most (60.4%) being bullying 1-2 times a semester (See Table 2 for all frequency data).  The data indicate that students witness bullying more than being victims of bullying.

Of the types of bullying, participants witnessed verbal bullying the most, followed by social bullying, cyber bullying, and lastly physical bullying. See Table 1 for all data regarding having witnessed and been bullied, and see Table 2 for all frequency data. Participants reported the residence hall as the most common location of bullying occurs followed by off-campus, and the dining hall.  See Figure 1 for the complete list of locations.  The most common perpetrator of bullying was a fellow student (not friend or significant other), followed by friend, and roommate.  See Figure 2 for complete list of perpetrators.

A chi-squared test indicated a significant relationship, X­­2 (3, N=158) = 11.47, p <.009, between year in school, and knowledge about whether the university has policy on bullying. The university does in fact have a policy regarding bullying.  This test indicates that freshmen have more knowledge than seniors about the current policy at the university. When asked whether or not students would report bullying a total of 60.8% said they would report it. The researcher coded the open-ended question that followed asking to whom they would report. Most of the participants would report bullying to faculty (N=42), followed by other / non-specified (N=32), police (N=28), RA / REC /Dean of students (N=24).

A one-way analysis of variance was conducted to see if there were any effect of year in school on thinking bullying was a problem at the school.  This test showed a significant effect (F (3, 160) = 4.31, p < .006) of year in school on the amount students think bullying is a problem at the university. A tukey post-hoc test indicated that all upperclassmen (sophomore (M=3.90, p = .048), juniors (M =3.93, p = .018), and seniors (M = 3.71, p = .030)) were significantly different from freshmen (M = 2.98).  However, it is worthy to note that a four on the Likert scale indicate that participants neither agree or disagree  that there is problem with bullying at the university, so one cannot make a full conclusion to whether upperclassmen think bullying is a problem.


At the end of the survey, participants wrote about a real incident in which they witnessed or were victims of bullying since coming to college. The participants described the incident including who was involved, the location, what occurred and the aftermath.  Of the 171 people that took the survey, 73.7% (N=126) participants described the incident. The 126 narratives in this survey show that students have experience a broad array of situations and experiences of bullying. Like the quantitative data, verbal bullying narratives, were, by far, the most abundant (58.7%).  Social bullying occurred in 15.1% of the narratives, followed by cyber bullying (7.9%), and physical bullying (7.1%). Finally, 11.1% of the narratives were not relevant or the bullying type could not be identified. The narratives ranged from one sentence to whole paragraphs, and from generic situations, to very complex and specific situations.

It is worthy to note, that some of the situations described cannot exactly be considered bullying, as they do not meet the three criteria of Olweus’s (1999) definition of bullying. The directions may have contributed this as there was no emphasis that the situation does not need to be repeated. Most of the narratives that do not meet the criteria do not contain the repeated occurrence criteria of the definition.  But nonetheless, those narratives are still important to investigate, as they are precursors to bullying.  The narratives also varied between generic situations to very specific stories about bullying.  The participants wrote narratives discussing all four types of bullying (verbal, physical, social, and cyber).

Verbal Bullying

Echoing the quantitative data, participants reported verbal bullying the most, with many of the examples involving derogatory name calling and teasing. Residence halls, the dining hall, and classrooms were the most discussed place in which verbal bullying occurred.  Altercations between roommates and suitemates emerged numerous times throughout the narratives. One participant wrote about how her roommate refers to her as a “little hobbit” because she is short. Several stories involve teasing related to race / ethnicity. One women’s story is as follows:

Because I am black other students of a different race feel that I do not belong at college.  My freshman year I lived in ______ and I’ll often get comments that said “How can you afford to attend college” and “Take your lazy ass up the stairs, you probably get food stamps.” This occurred from people I do not know and who do not know me.  I still get called “townie” or “ratchet” because students of a different race do not believe I attend this university.

Other popular reasons people gave for being made fun of were the way the student dresses, the way they act, and sexual orientation.

The narratives show that verbal bullying does not just happen between students; several narratives discuss faculty picking on certain students, and repeatedly making fun of them. Several students wrote narratives about a certain professor, stating that the professor “tends to pick out individual students in classes…and pressure them, or degrade them with his words. The professor treats the students with no respect.” According to another narrative, a professor called a student a “pig pen” because the student wore sweatpants to class. Verbal bullying remains the most popular form of bullying reported in the narratives, and shows that it is potentially a pervasive problem.

Physical Bullying

Several narratives described physical bullying very generically, such as “People getting in fights with other peers at parties. Frats getting into fights with townies.” These incidents may not be classified as bullying, because it is unclear based on the response if this is repetitive behavior.  A majority of the narratives that describe physical bullying occur at parties in which the perpetrator was described as “too intoxicated”. Other narratives that involve physical bullying describe an event such as someone stealing or damaging their possessions on purpose.

Social Bullying

The narratives that describe social bullying are much like the physical bullying narratives in that most are generic situations that do not provide much detail.  The main pattern in these narratives involves ignoring or excluding people from a group.  Several people discuss how on-campus organization purposely ignore and do not associate themselves with off-campus organizations. Off-campus organizations are those organization that are not formally recognized by the university.  Other narratives on social bullying involve group projects in classrooms some students will purposely ignore others in their group that they do not like. One student described her experience: “Lab partners in biology class ignore me like I’m not part of the group. They do everything without me like I’m not even there. I sat quietly, sad and just waited for the end of the lab to ask the professor for help.” Social bullying may not very noticeable, but it seems from these responses that social bullying can have effects on people.

Cyber Bullying

Only 10 narratives discussed cyber bullying, and all incidences discussed occurred on social media including Facebook and Twitter. One participant, had their Facebook hacked by a friend who deleted all photos on the account, and put up inappropriate statuses. Another participant mentioned CollegeACB, a website where people can bully and make fun of anyone at a university anonymously.  Authorities deactivated the website in 2011.


The quantitative results of this study indicate a substantial amount of college bullying does occur.  Over a majority of students that participated in this research report witnessing bullying since coming to college.  The most common type of bullying reported was verbal bullying, followed by social bullying, cyber bullying, and the least reported was physical bullying. The results indicate a substantial variation between those who report witnessing bullying, and those who have been bullied since coming to college.  One possible explanation may be the fact that people are far less likely to admit to being bullied, or their perceptions of being bullied are different from witnessing bullying. Examining this difference may be a future direction for research

The significant different between freshmen and seniors and their knowledge on policy, indicate a knowledge gap on policy between upperclassmen and freshmen.  One possible explanation to this result may be the fact that freshmen have reviewed the student handbook in their freshmen orientation class, and seniors may no longer be as familiar with all the rules and policies. The significant difference between year in school and the amount participants think bullying is a problem at the university may be explained through the fact that freshmen have only been in college for three months before they took the survey, and may not have many experiences yet.

The narratives show that students experience a broad array of situations involving college bullying.  Qualitative results repeat those found in the quantitative data, as verbal bullying was the most common, followed by social, cyber, and physical bullying. The narratives shed light on students’ experiences at college, and are important to consider, as they could be precursors to bullying.  One limitation was the wording to the narrative questions. The wording may have misdirected some of the participants’ responses, as many did not describe instances of bullying that met the requirements of Olweus’s (1999) definition of bullying.

Another limitation in this study is that sophomores and juniors are underrepresented, and more representative sample of all classes would be ideal for this study.   Future directions of research could involve administering this survey again in a couple of years to see if bullying has increased or declined with time.  Another future direction is to administer this survey at multiple universities, as more research needs to occur in order to understand the prevalence of college bullying. Lastly, more research on bullying policy and effectiveness of the policy needs to be done, as many universities do not have polices or have limited polices on bullying specifically. This mixed-methods study sheds light on the fact that many people are impacted by bullying in college, and further research needs to occur in order to fully understand this problem.


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