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How Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Bullying?

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Key Takeaways

  • Mental health experts and anti-bullying advocates say they've witnessed an increase in bullying in recent years.
  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people's mood states may have contributed to the rise in bullying.
  • It's more important than ever for schools and workplaces to facilitate bullying prevention strategies.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and spreading awareness of the issue is more vital than ever. Bullying is a global problem, affecting people of all ages, taking multiple forms. And rather than inspire kindness and understanding, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated the problem.

“Unfortunately, I have observed an increase in bullying over the last few years,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers. “Children, adolescents, and adults of all ages have shared that they are experiencing a higher frequency and severity of bullying in disparate settings including online, school, work, and even home.”

A Bullying Pandemic

Dr. Magavi believes that the pandemic has adversely affected individuals’ mood states, which has contributed to an increase in bullying. “Depression and anxiety can manifest as irritability and anger, which can lead to increased bullying, abuse, and violence,” she explains. “When individuals feel utterly helpless, they may take their anger out on others. People may find it easy and comforting to blame others as this may help them gain a sense of control.” 

An increase in conspiracy theories may be another factor. “These may significantly exacerbate schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another person's misfortune) and feelings of helplessness and isolation,” Dr. Magavi says. “It’s in these lamentable moments that vulnerable individuals yearn for connectedness, and consequently, idealize individuals of power to seek solace.”

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Children, adolescents, and adults of all ages have shared that they are experiencing a higher frequency and severity of bullying in disparate settings including online, school, work, and even home.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

When all the individuals in a person’s inner circle perceive someone as a savior, deviating from this belief could mean the loss of friends and family. “In many communities, individuals spend much of their childhood learning about anxiety-inducing conspiracy theories, which promote splitting or all-or-nothing thinking,” Dr. Magavi says. Subsequently, these children may grow up to be adults who perceive individuals as either all good or all bad, and consequently, engage in more bullying.

Bullying Takes Many Forms

Online bullying has become a huge issue for young people in particular, says Sherri Gordon, an advocate for bullying prevention in central Ohio and author of several books including Coping With Online Flaming and Trolling and Are You at Risk for Abuse?

Limited social interaction during the pandemic has led to an even greater reliance on technology and social media for peer-to-peer contact, Gordon explains. “Ultimately, this environment has become a hotbed for bullying and online shaming,” she says. 

The reasons people are being bullied or shamed have also changed due to COVID-19. People might be bullied for wearing a mask, for getting the vaccine, for not getting the vaccine, or for even getting sick with COVID, says Gordon. 

Bullying Today

According to National Center for Educational Statistics, one out of every five (20.2%) students report being bullied at school, with male students more likely to be physically bullied than female students. However, a higher percentage of female students reported being the target of rumors and being deliberately excluded from activities.

A national survey carried out by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 30% of U.S. workers experience bullying in the workplace, 19% witness it and 66% are aware that it is happening.



Gordon also highlights a distributing TikTok trend, where kids are challenged to hit a teacher or vandalize their school and then post it online in order to “complete” the challenge. “One quick Google search and you can see that there are countless schools across the country that are dealing with this—even my son’s school has sent home notices about this type of behavior,” she says. “Although this is not technically bullying, you can see that people often use social media as a tool that hurts others.” 

Anybody is at risk of bullying, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. However, there are some people that are at greater risk than others, including those without strong support networks, those with physical or mental limitations, those who are viewed as different in some way, and those with anxiety or self-esteem issues. “Even those who are well-liked can still be targeted by people who bully,” says Gordon. “These people are targeted because others are envious of who they are and want to hurt them in some way.” 

The Impact of Bullying 

Bullying can have significant and long-term effects on a child’s mental health, even well into adulthood. “When a child is bullied, their self-esteem and self-image are impacted,” says Nashville, TN-based therapist GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC. “Bullying can lead to poor self-esteem and loss of confidence, along with other mental health effects, like anxiety, depression, and aggression.”

Additionally, a child who is bullied may struggle to connect with others, feel worthy of love, and learn how to regulate and express their emotions in a healthy way.

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Bullying can lead to poor self-esteem and loss of confidence, along with other mental health effects, like anxiety, depression, and aggression.

— GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC


Adults can suffer long-term consequences of bullying too, of course. But Guarino says children are more vulnerable because critical development processes occur during childhood. “A child learns about the world and how they fit into it during childhood,” she explains. “They learn how to relate to others, understand who they are, and develop their identity.” If a child is bullied, they learn negative lessons about how they fit into the world around them, while an adult being bullied may already have certain life skills that will offer them resilience.

The way an adult is impacted by bullying will depend on a few factors, like emotional regulation skills, self-esteem, support networks, learned coping skills, and resilience to stress, Guarino says. 

Putting an End to Bullying 

As someone who advocates for bullying prevention in schools, Gordon is concerned about the direction in which bullying is headed. The impact of COVID-19 on mental health has been well documented, so it's concerning that much-needed preventative strategies aren't as available as they once were.

"Prior to the pandemic, there were programs in place to help change the school climate, build acceptance among students, and prevent bullying," Gordon says. "At one school where I volunteer we had a Climate Group where we would meet with a diverse group of students and strategize on how to change the climate within the school and prevent bullying. Because of the pandemic, this group is no longer meeting. Consequently, the pandemic has made it challenging to address bullying in ways we are used to."

Sherri Gordon

Bullying issues are not going away just because we are in the midst of a pandemic—and may even be increasing—so we cannot let this issue be put on the back burner. If we do, all of our progress could be reversed.

— Sherri Gordon

Many schools and workplaces are so overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic that their staff simply don't have the time or energy to devote to bullying prevention. "We are going to have to get creative on how to address the issues," says Gordon. "Bullying issues are not going away just because we are in the midst of a pandemic—and may even be increasing—so we cannot let this issue be put on the back burner. If we do, all of our progress could be reversed."

Bullying is a complex issue and complete eradication of it requires a multi-faceted approach. But Gordon believes the single most important thing society can do is become intolerant of bullying behavior.

At an individual level, this means saying or doing something that shows you don't support that type of behavior whenever you witness it, whether it happens online or in person. "Even just offering support to the person being victimized can go a long way," Gordon says.

What This Means For You

If you or your child is a victim of bullying and you need help to deal with the situation, a local support group facilitated by a mental health professional may be helpful. This offers a space for people with similar experiences to support each other and empower members to self-advocate and build a healthy sense of self-esteem.

Individual counseling may also help children and adults learn coping skills for managing feelings and negative thoughts that come from being bullied. Various resources are available at stopbullying.gov.

Seek legal support and contact the police if you're concerned about your safety.

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