Does the sight of someone in pain or distress do little to move you? If so, you may share something in common with a bully.

Research into what makes a bully tick shows many have low levels of empathy and can be described as "morally disengaged".

There is no set profile for a bully, Dr Jaimee Stuart, of the Victoria University school of psychology, said, but there are "some really common characteristics", which could usually be identified by how a child interacts with other children.

"Particularly if there's a lack of empathy and a lack of care for other people's feelings, those are quite key indicators."


Dr Stuart said: "A bully will tend to externalise their feelings, they'll tend to act out, and they'll tend to have quite behavioural responses to their emotions."

Bullying was goal-driven, Dr Stuart said, usually to win admiration or respect from peers.

"Pure bullies tend to be more popular than other kids, and that's because there are two types of power-based behaviours that adolescents tend to engage in." Anti-social power, such as bullying, and pro-social power, or doing nice things for other people.

"But the unfortunate thing is that research shows there tends to be more ... admiration, for those who use anti-social power, than those who use pro-social power," Dr Stuart said.

"So there is this motivation by individuals, because ... the behaviour is reinforced [by peer approval], to act out in anti-social ways."

For example: "A child who would do something that maybe they think is not that nice to look good, that would definitely be a characteristic of a bully."

This can be amplified online, making the bully "even more powerful", Dr Stuart said. Cyberbullying had been shown to have "more of an impact on victims than traditional types of bullying".

The "potentially limitless" audience online was highly attractive to cyberbullies, she said, who would see it as gaining more social power from "potentially everyone on the internet" who could see their posts. But at the same time, it also provides an element of protection in its anonymity.

Dr Shyamala Nada-Raja says a cyberbully is more likely to also perpetrate traditional bullying behaviours. Photo / Supplied
Dr Shyamala Nada-Raja says a cyberbully is more likely to also perpetrate traditional bullying behaviours. Photo / Supplied

Dr Shyamala Nada-Raja, a senior research fellow in preventive and social medicine at the University of Otago, said there were a number of key factors which put young people at risk of becoming bullies.

"Firstly a cyberbully ... is more likely to also perpetrate traditional bullying behaviours," she said.

"They also tend to be people who break rules [for example] alcohol misuse, smoking, truancy, petty theft."

There was also an "overlap" between bullies and victims, she said, so young people who have been the victim of bullying are more likely to become a bully themselves.

Spending a lot of time online was another "not surprising" factor for a cyberbully, Dr Nada-Raja said.

Others included moral disengagement - "it might be because with cyberbullying there's a greater degree of anonymity, and therefore you don't actually see your victim going through the pain and the distress" - and low levels of empathy.

There were mixed results as to whether low self-esteem was a factor, she said, and gender also appeared to make no difference

Dr Nada-Raja, principal investigator for the i-well research project working to improve mental health and wellbeing in young people, said many of the characteristics found among cyberbullies suggests "someone who has experienced trauma", like family violence or child abuse.

Are you a cyber bully?

If you agree with these questions, you are more likely to be a cyber bully:

• Do you find it difficult to control your emotions, and find yourself lashing out and taking your feelings out on others?
• Do you feel a desire to do things to look good in front of others, even if that means doing something you know isn't nice or will hurt someone else?
• Do you take part in risky or antisocial behaviour, or rule-breaking?
• Do you spend a lot of time communicating with others online?
• Are you already engaging in 'traditional' bullying behaviours, or are you a victim of bullying yourself?
• Are you morally disengaged, and/or have a lack of empathy for others?
• Do you feel disconnected to, or have a weak attachment to your parents or caregivers?

Where to get help:

• In an emergency: call 111
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633, or text 234 (available 24/7) or or live chat (between 7pm and 11pm)
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155 (weekdays 11am to 5pm)
• NetSafe: 0508 NETSAFE (0508 638 723),