The Case for Including Intent in a Definition of Bullying Cyberbullying Research Center

Last week I presented at the International Bullying Prevention Association’s annual conference in San Diego, CA. This was the second time that I have participated in this event, and both experiences were enjoyable and educational. The attendees (over 700 strong this year) are generally very interested in the work that we are doing at the Cyberbullying Research Center, and the other presenters are uniformly among the best in the business.

The conversations that occur between the formal presentations are just as enlightening and thought-provoking as anything within the scheduled sessions. Talking with attendees and other speakers sparks insights about issues we are working on and allows us to view our research and writings from the perspective of informed others. It was a couple of these conversations that sparked my interest in writing this post.

Right before my first presentation, I got to talking with Stan Davis about how bullying is defined and specifically whether intent was a necessary component. Most definitions include this element, and ours is no different. Specifically, we define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” Like most others, we argue that to be considered bullying, the behavior in question needs to be intentional.

Stan suggested that whether a behavior was deliberate or not was beside the point. If it was hurtful, or if the person doing it should have known that it could have resulted in harm to another, then it is bullying. His position was supported by Elizabeth Englander, another researcher at the conference whose work I very much respect. She added that the problem with including intent as a defining criteria is that it requires teachers in the classroom to get into the heads of students to try to figure out what they were thinking when they did what they did. This is a fair point, though one easy way to determine intent is to see if the behavior was repeated after some initial intervention. If the student is made aware that their behavior is causing harm to another (either by the target, a bystander, or other third party), and yet they continue to behave in the same way, then it’s clearly intentional.

After my presentation, Lori Ernsperger, another speaker who attended my session, came up to me to also discuss whether intent was really a necessary component of bullying. Lori and I chatted briefly about our respective positions on this issue, but because others were waiting to speak with me, we weren’t able to dig into the details enough to clearly explain where each other was coming from. I don’t think that Stan, Elizabeth, and Lori collectively conspired to critique this component of my presentation, so I did feel the need to consider this question further.

That’s why I was happy to receive an email from Lori shortly after the conference with additional information about why she felt it was imperative that we adjust our definition by removing the element of intent. She was particularly concerned with the implications of requiring intent to define something as bullying when it came to behaviors targeting students with disabilities. “Disability harassment,” she argued, “does not consider the intentionality of the bully, only if it is ‘unwelcome conduct.’ When the term ‘willful’ is used for defining bullying it requires schools to have separate policies and definitions for students within protected classes.”

She presented me with a hypothetical incident to consider:

A 16-year-old high school tennis player has a genetic disorder and diabetes. His teammates have been harassing him about going to the nurse’s office and requiring more snack breaks during practice. This goes on for a year. Coaching staff have observed this, but as required by law (FERPA), most school personnel do not know he is a child with a disability. After repeated teasing, he stops going to the nurse and eventually drops out of tennis. This is a clear violation of his civil rights, but the school said it was not “intentional” on the part of the other students (“they were good kids from good homes and did not mean it”) and they did not see this as willful behavior. But is does not matter, it was unwelcome conduct that changed this student’s educational experience. All school personnel should observe and intervene regardless of the intentionality.

First of all, regardless of intent, I agree wholeheartedly with the final sentence in her vignette. School personnel should intervene whether the behavior is defined as bullying or not. One thing is clear, the tennis players were being mean toward their teammate and that should be addressed. But was it bullying? If the students involved in harassing the tennis player for a whole year genuinely didn’t realize that what they were doing was harming the target, then it isn’t bullying. Or, if a reasonable person would have known that the behaviors were causing harm, then it would be intentional and be accurately categorized as bullying. As I have previously written, best friends can say things to each other that appear to be mean or that could unintentionally make someone upset. But are these things really bullying?

As a comparable example, maybe I say something to someone on a repeated basis, just thinking I am being funny, and that person completely ignores or even laughs along with what I am saying. But it turns out that the person is actually very hurt by my comments, yet he never expresses that to me (nor does anyone else). What I am saying may be mean or rude, but it isn’t bullying. Should it be addressed? Of course. Should it stop? Absolutely. If we were students at the same school it would be completely appropriate for a teacher or counselor or whomever to make me aware of the harm that I am causing. At that point, I should definitely apologize and not do it again. If I do repeat it, then that clearly demonstrates willfulness because I was informed of the hurtful nature of what I was saying, but still continued. And that would be bullying.

Lori insisted that the “unwelcome conduct” standard is really what matters. If something is unwelcome, then it is bullying. I don’t think it is that simple. What if I bump into someone in the hallway? Or spill my hot tea on someone’s lap? What if I crash into another vehicle when that person is stopped at a stoplight? These are all clear examples of unwelcome conduct, are they not? Would it be accurate to classify these as bullying—even if they were isolated events and completely accidental? Plus, in order for any of these behaviors to be considered “harassment” in a technical/legal sense, one would have to prove that they were done because of a person’s status (based on race, class, gender, disability, etc.). Harassment is different from bullying. Some bullying behaviors could accurately be classified as harassment, and some harassment could be bullying. But the overlap is not 100%. For example, harassment (again, as formally defined) is always based on a protected status, whereas bullying is not. Harassment could be a singular incident (though often not), whereas bullying is always repetitive (or at least presents an imminent expectation of repetition). I still can’t think of an example of a behavior that should be accurately defined as bullying where intent to cause harm is not present.

The bottom line is that we simply cannot call every harmful or hurtful or mean behavior between teens “bullying.” That dilutes the problem and is confusing to everyone involved. Bullying is a specific and more serious form of interpersonal harm and the term needs to be reserved for behaviors which are repeated and intentional.

That’s what I think. What about you?

14 Comments
  1. Jacek Pyżalski

    Unintentionality is often observed in cyberbullying. While I was conducting interviews with perpetrators they acknowledged being engage in really serious actions that they described as pranks/hoaxs, etc. At the same time they described serious harm they have caused. Then on the big sample of adolescents almost 40% said they did something to another person by a phone/internet that was intended to be a hoax but ended up as a real harm.

  2. Jacek Pyżalski

    Unintentionality is often observed in cyberbullying. While I was conducting interviews with perpetrators they acknowledged being engage in really serious actions that they described as pranks/hoaxs, etc. At the same time they described serious harm they have caused. Then on the big sample of adolescents almost 40% said they did something to another person by a phone/internet that was intended to be a hoax but ended up as a real harm.

  3. Tim Wavrunek

    I too take the position that intent plays a key role in defining true bullying. There are many unwanted behaviors that occur on a daily basis that cause harm unintentionally to individuals, however, when unintentional in nature, that harm is more readily mitigated by the individuals involved.

    In the scenario presented by your colleague, the repair between the parties does not have to work through malicious intent but still has harm to deal with as well as a sharing of impact of the actions to come to a common understanding as to why and how the harm was caused. In an intentional act, repair becomes more involved as there are more than likely other issues at hand, ie. “I don’t like you because you’re different.”

    While establishing intent does provide some challenges for educators I would take the position that it is likely more easily obtained than identifying ” if the person doing it should have known that it could have resulted in harm to another…..”. In that stance we project a uniform expectation that all individuals should know the same thing regardless of upbringing, home environment, learning capacity, emotional intelligence, etc.

    A great article and good food for thought all the way around. Thanks for sharing!

    • Justin W. Patchin

      Thanks for your thoughts Tim!

  4. Tim Wavrunek

    I too take the position that intent plays a key role in defining true bullying. There are many unwanted behaviors that occur on a daily basis that cause harm unintentionally to individuals, however, when unintentional in nature, that harm is more readily mitigated by the individuals involved.

    In the scenario presented by your colleague, the repair between the parties does not have to work through malicious intent but still has harm to deal with as well as a sharing of impact of the actions to come to a common understanding as to why and how the harm was caused. In an intentional act, repair becomes more involved as there are more than likely other issues at hand, ie. “I don’t like you because you’re different.”

    While establishing intent does provide some challenges for educators I would take the position that it is likely more easily obtained than identifying ” if the person doing it should have known that it could have resulted in harm to another…..”. In that stance we project a uniform expectation that all individuals should know the same thing regardless of upbringing, home environment, learning capacity, emotional intelligence, etc.

    A great article and good food for thought all the way around. Thanks for sharing!

    • Justin W. Patchin

      Thanks for your thoughts Tim!

  5. Tony Esteves

    Hey Justin!

    What purpose are you intending when you add “intent” to the definition of “bullying”? 🙂

    Are you aiming to focus your attention on young potential criminals and reform them before they grow up and become a burden on society? People who accidentally commit bullying behaviour (or toxic behaviour) without intent are going to grow up to be fine and don’t need your focus/attention.

    I would say that my reason for not wanting “intent” to be in the definition is because bullying (or toxic) behaviour appears to be becoming more of a way of life (culturally accepted). That, even if it’s not intended, people react and behave negatively toward normally upsetting circumstances. Rather than having a calm discourse on matters that we disagree with or seeking out the proper method to resolve a dispute… we lash out, fight back, taunt, sabotage, do cruel things, publicly shame people on social media – not with the intention of hurting others but defending ourselves.

    Perhaps, semantically speaking, your “bullying” is different than my “bullying.” But I would like to focus on ending the casual/unintentional bad behaviour -– and maybe those who “intend” to continue the bad behaviour will stick out like a sore thumb.

    • Justin W. Patchin

      Hi Tony – without question we want to end all of the kinds of behaviors you refer to. All I am suggesting is that to call all harmful behavior between teens “bullying” is wrong. We do want to stop/prevent/respond to unintentional harms as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

      • Tony Esteves

        I think I see what you are saying: All bullying is harmful behaviour but not all harmful behaviour is bullying…

        However, using “intent” as a qualifier makes bullying near impossible to find because one could lie about their intent.

        • Tony Esteves

          For an example: a manager repeatedly berates an employee in front of their co-workers. If, by definition, they are required to intend harm to the employee to be considered a workplace bully, I guess that’s fair – however, if the manager says, “I was using negative reinforcement to encourage more productivity,” they get to continue the harmful behaviour.

          Even if they are told that they are creating a toxic workplace, the manager is in a position of power and does not have to answer to the offended party.

          • Justin W. Patchin

            I think one can create a hostile workplace with behaviors that do not qualify as bullying. If the manager is addressing work quality/performance issues–even in a berating way–I don’t necessarily see that as bullying (though it may be). It still may be hurtful and can be toxic to the environment. Applying these principles to adults in the workplace admittedly makes it even more challenging…

  6. LLD

    I think including intent in the definition of bullying is significant. Some behaviors are unintentionally harmful. Those behaviors should not be handled in the same was as when somebody intentionally works to harm another.

  7. Laughing Leopard Press

    I would certainly agree that intentionality is vital in the discussion about bullying. Like you, I believe that all harmful behavior, intentional or not, should be stopped and dealt with, but the way behavior is defined informs how the behavior is dealt with. For example, if a student believed he was just joking around and didn't realize he was hurting another student, this behavior would be dealt with very differently than if the first student had meant to cause harm. Bullying, and all social interactions for that matter, has two sides and two people with two sets of life experiences and issues. If we don't address both sides of the interaction properly, the problem will not get solved. Additionally, labeling everything as bullying waters down the seriousness of the issue.

  8. Kellie

    I too believe intention is the difference between bullying and harassment. Your argument is in line with what mine has always been – I may say or do something that hurts another individual's feelings thinking that it is just in jest – once it has been identified as being hurtful the behaviours or comments should stop and I should be offering a heartfelt apology because hurting the other person was not my intention. If I don't stop after being made aware of the potential harm and hurt feelings I have caused, then a reasonable person would surmise that I was intentionally hurting that person and didn't care about what harm I was causing. We can't possibly know what is in everyone's head in terms of whether we are hurting his/her feelings and there is no doubt that some people are more sensitive than others, so when we call everything bullying based on 'feelings' we are making victims of everyone and that's not healthy either. Clearly communication is the answer and discussions should continue on this topic but I think both sides must be considered. We've all said and done things in the heat of the moment, or become frustrated with a situation and commented unkindly about someone in certain circumstances – does that make all of us bullies? Thanks for your view and for creating the discussion.

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