Perceptions of “Friend” Bullying Proves a Challenge for Middle School Audiences

Student perceptions of what bullying is and how it occurs continues to be varied in schools. When asked to indicate an understanding of different kinds of bullying behavior, Direction Survey Bullying data approximately 46% of students in grades 6-8 reported their friends routinely say mean things to them, thinking they are simply joking around.

Penn State University’s Perkins and Berrena report many bullies try to pass off acts of aggression as roughhousing between friends or just having fun. Their article “Bullying: What Educators Can Do About It” offers a reminder that bullying can come from those who are also “friends.” Student relationships with one another will ebb and flow, with periodic ups and downs. It is when these swings are fueled by purposeful negativity aimed at a friend that bullying behavior may emerge (

An episode of bullying has three identifying characteristics:

• A power difference between the individual being bullied and the bully
• A negative intent on the part of the bully to hurt, embarrass, or humiliate the other
• Repeated behavior—with others, with the same person, and/or with the same person over time

An October 2013 report on suggests there are steps educators and parents can take when students do not necessarily see bullying cloaked in the highs and lows of friendships. Perhaps most important is the act of modeling positive behavior to build a school-wide expectation of kindness, respect and empathy to cultivate an environment where everyone feels connected (

The Penn State research suggests that in schools “friendly” bullying can successfully be addressed through in-class cooperative activities. Teachers and school leaders are encouraged to set a model for empathetic, kind community behavior as they instruct students in these expectations. Teachers can implement cooperative learning activities to reduce social isolation and not-so-friendly banter by pointing it out when it occurs. They can define the behavior, and use the class as a whole to create response strategies and communication resources to address friendly bullying. For focused activities, check out the Resources section on Direction Survey for helpful ideas to address friend bullying!