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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Bullying is where people inflict harm on others through verbal or physical actions that are repeated a number of times in an attempt to wear the victim down. The perpetrator has an advantage over the victim, and is usually bigger and stronger or has greater social power or dominance. The aggressive displays of the offender are not welcomed by the sufferer and the latter isn’t having fun. Isolated incidents of abuse caused by stress or frustration are not classified as bullying.

Harmless fun, on the other hand, is where no obvious victim or aggressor is apparent. A typical scenario of harmless fun might be a group of school or work friends engaged in spontaneous horseplay or friendly banter. All participants appear to be on a more or less equal footing, with no individual giving or receiving more than their fair share. Everyone is happy and willing to take part and seems to be having a good time.

The line between bullying and harmless fun is often a fine one and depends on the situation. In some cases of bullying, the intention of the bully is clearly to cause harm to their victim. In other cases, people might not see their actions as bullying but as harmless fun. Here, the victim and the bully might be friends, or at least start off as friends. Often what starts off as innocent fun can quickly and inadvertently become bullying.

Schools have traditionally been places where a fair amount of bullying takes place. School bullying can be physical such as shoving, hitting or attacking. Or it can be verbal, having an emotional effect on the victim, and can include insults, name calling, ganging up or spreading rumors. The line between harmless fun and bullying at school is usually clear cut, except perhaps for certain incidents during initiation ceremonies. Here, if the actions are quick and mild, bullying may not have occurred. However, such initiations have a history of extreme behavior with clear victims and perpetrators.

Of increasing concern in more recent years, especially among school children, is cyberbullying where perpetrators post offending text or images electronically with the intention of harming or embarrassing the victim. It’s hard to think of any circumstances where such actions could be described as harmless fun.

Workplace bullying tends to be more subtle than in schools (although certainly not always) and is likely to be emotional rather than physical. Because it is often not blatant or obvious, bullying at work can be harder to detect and resolve. Workplace bullying can involve arrogance by the boss or others, gossiping, spreading rumors, and ostracism. People at most if not all organizations will engage in harmless fun either during hours or in a social setting after work. This is quite acceptable so long as certain people don’t seem to be the butt of most jokes or other actions, and productivity isn’t affected.

Some of the worst examples of bullying have been in the military. Large numbers of young people, mainly males, working and living with each other can result in an unhealthy and bullying environment if left unchecked. The armed forces are no exception. Some argue that bullying is acceptable in the military as people who are trained to go to war should be able to cope with bullying. However, what was once thought of as harmless fun, such as extreme initiation activities, is now regarded as bullying. Attitudes have changed over time.

Many organizations such as sports teams, university colleges, the military, and police forces practice a form of bullying called hazing. This is where people, often those new to an organization, have to perform meaningless tasks to gain acceptance into a group. These may be part of an initiation process. Examples might include cleaning all the cars in the parking lot or moving a large pile of firewood from one side of a building to the other. If they fail to complete these tasks, they may be subject to some kind of punishment or abuse such as losing their trousers or being tied to a tree. This may seem like harmless fun to the initiators but not usually to the victims, although there would always be exceptions where a person is quite happy and accepting of such activity.

The line between bullying and harmless fun has become clearer in recent times. In many cases, what used to be regarded as harmless fun is now thought of as bullying. Perhaps the best way to decide if an action is bullying or a bit of fun is to ask whether all participants are clearly having fun and are happy with the situation.