Violence, bullying and cyberbullying amid COVID-19 pandemic

UNESCO member states have designated the first Thursday in November of each year the International Day against Violence and Bullying at School Including Cyberbullying. November 5, 2020 is the first time the world marks this important International Day. The theme of this first observance is “Together against Bullying in school”.

UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - established the annual day at its 40th General Conference in November 2019, recognizing that bullying in schools and cyberbullying is an infringement of children's and adolescents' rights to education and to health and well-being. 

One in three students

Children face violence and bullying at school all over the world, with one in every three students subject to attacks at least once a month and one in 10, a victim of cyberbullying.

The warning from UNESCO, the UN organization for education, science and culture, based on 2019 data.

“Recent attacks on schools in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Pakistan, and the assassination of teacher Samuel Paty in France, sadly underscore the critical issue of protecting our schools from all forms of violence,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, in a statement.

Tackling bullying is also key to the protection of students, Azoulay continued, describing it as a “blight” that was “neglected,  minimized  or  ignored”, even though it inflicted “physical and emotional suffering on millions of children around the world”.

Given the scale of school violence and bullying highlighted in a 2019 report by UNESCO covering 144 countries, Azoulay insisted on the need to raise global awareness and put a stop to both problems.

“As students, parents, members of the educational community and ordinary citizens, we have all a part to play in stopping violence and bullying in schools", she maintained.


There are significant negative effects of the violence, including on academic achievement, mental health, and quality of life in general. Students who are frequently bullied are nearly three times more likely to feel like an outsider at school and more than twice as likely to miss school as those who are not frequently bullied.

Victims of bullying have worse educational records and are also more likely to leave formal education after finishing secondary school. They are twice as likely to feel lonely, to be unable to sleep at night, and to have contemplated suicide. A study conducted in 77 countries showed the negative impact of bullying on girls' performance in maths and science tests. 

Who are the victims?

According to UNESCO, physical appearance is the top reason for bullying, followed by ethnicity, nationality and the colour of one's skin. Students who are seen as “different” in any way are more at risk of being bullied, such as girls perceived to look or act like boys, or boys perceived to look or act like girls.

While bullying is most often carried out by children’s peers, in some cases teachers and other school staff are believed to be responsible. Corporal punishment is still permitted in schools in 67 countries, UNESCO noted.

Cyberbullying on the rise

In a message for the international day, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay UNESCO noted that one in ten students has been cyberbullied, adding that this form of bullying is on the rise in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to data from seven European countries, the proportion of children aged 11 to 16 who have fallen victim to cyberbullying increased from 7% to 12% between 2010 and 2014. Cyberbullying may take place in a “virtual” world, Azoulay said, but it has a very real impact on children's health. “Beyond the numbers, there are tragic stories, educations ruined, and lives sometimes permanently ripped apart.”

Too many people think bullying at school including cyberbullying is an inevitable rite of passage to adulthood and that is relatively harmless and one can do little to stop it. Instead, there is strong evidence that violence and bullying at school including cyberbullying can be prevented and effectively addressed if it happens.

Bullies are in fact weak and fearful

Pope Francis, who has been an ardent advocate of healthy and quality education for all young people, has addressed the issue of bullying on several occasions.  

During his meeting with young people in Tokyo, Japan, in November 2019, he spoke at length about bullying.  Responding to a question by a bully victim, a Filipino, the Holy Father said a bully tries to escape his own fear.  “The cruellest thing about bullying,” he said, “is that it attacks our self-confidence at the very time when we most need the ability to accept ourselves and to confront new challenges in life.”  “Sometimes, victims of bullying even blame themselves for being ‘easy’ targets” and can even “end up in very tragic situations”.

“Yet paradoxically,” he noted, “it is the bullies … who are the truly weak ones” because “deep down, bullies are afraid, and they cover their fear by a show of strength.” The Pope said a bully is always fearful and fear is always the enemy of goodness, and so it is the enemy of love and peace. All religions, he said, “teach tolerance, teach harmony, teach mercy; religions do not teach fear, division and conflict”.

He thus urged young people to join hands in fighting bullying, saying, “There is no greater weapon against these actions than standing up in the midst of our classmates and friends and saying: 'What you are doing – bullying – is wrong.'”

Mai Nguyen