Cyberbullying or Collaborative Violence?

On: October 22, 2007
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About Qilan Zhao
I'm currently enrolled in the research master's program Media Studies. Prior to this program, I graduated with a MA in Film and Television Studies in 2005. My field of interest includes gender relations, youth culture, transnational media, and Japanese animation.


Media and communication technology has provided us with tools to enable and facilitate collaboration without physical participation or geographical constraints. When it comes to the impact of new media on childhood and youth, there has always been much discussion of the potential benefits, but as well as dangers of these new media tools. Along came a rise of new phenomena that cuts across the private and public space. One of these phenomena is the practice of cyberbullying. Here I want to look into the collaborative aspects of cyberbullying and set it against Christoph Spehr ’s notion of free cooperation.

Last year, I volunteered at the Cinekid Festival which is an annual event held in October. On my first day, I was responsible for a device called the “reactie machine”, which has an inbuilt camera and a screen that shows a 20-second film of the person who was filmed previously. Children are supposed to construct an interactive story by continuing the story of their predecessors. The day (or at least my day) was not very successful in terms of creating a collaborative story. But what struck me the most was the one (and only) story I got out of my participants, which revealed the story about a chicken that got eaten by a wolf. This made the (dead) chicken very mad. The boy, whose turn was right after, finished the story with a violent and vengeful resolution. The chickens took their guns and shot the wolf dead. This experience led me questioning the extent to which children are exposed to violence in the media and the possible channels (or ways) to release such effects. Cyberbullying for this matter can be seen as a way to act out violent behavior in a virtual environment that is poorly monitored by parents and teachers.


Cyberbullying according to Wikipedia is

the term used to refer to bullying and harassment by use of electronic devices through means of e-mail, instant messaging, text messages, blogs, mobile phones, pagers, and websites.

Cyberbullying is willful and involves recurring or repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text.”
Cyberbullying comes in many forms, ranging from threats, sexual remarks, hate speech to publishing defamatory material about a person on the Internet.

Cyberbullying is also a global phenomenon with incidents around the world. With a focus on Dutch society, research showed that 20% of the youth who participated in the research find cyberbullying rather amusing. The main reason for the engagement in such practice is because one can participate and remain anonymous.

Anonymity is inherent (although not untraceable) to the new media environment. Does this necessary means that the use of new media tools accumulates to the violent effects of the media? Sometimes yes, and other times no. I think a better way to understand the effects of media violence and the possible outlets of such effects is by looking at the layers of collaboration in the practice of cyberbullying.

Christoph Spehr set out three conditions under which collaboration can be defined as free cooperation. The first one refers to a form of collaboration in which all members have equal say about the rules of the collaboration:

The traditional distribution of disposal, possession, work and the traditional rules are not sacrosanct, do not have “higher authority,” but can be negotiated anew by the members of the cooperation at any time (Lovink en Scholz 2007: 92).

The lack of supervision, whether by parents, or web or chat hosts facilitates the collaboration between (cyber) bullies. Chat hosts can only observe the dialog in some chat rooms, but everything outside a chat room or via instant messengers is solely viewable by the sender and the recipient. Furthermore, (especially) teens hardly encounter a higher authority in their online experience. Teens often know more about computers than their parents and no individual is able to monitor someone else’s online behavior 24/7.

Once the members have collectively chosen a target, or victim, they decide individually when or how to intimidate their target and it remains up to the members of the group to decide when to stop or change to another victim. This brings us to Spehr second condition of free cooperation:

all members are free to quit the cooperation, to give limits or con¬ditions for their cooperative activity, and to influence the rules of the cooperation by that (Ibid).

And lastly,

all members are equal insofar as they can do this at a price that is similar and bearable; i.e., the price of leaving the cooperation, or to give limits or conditions for one’s cooperative activity, has to be similarly high (or low) for all members but in any case reasonable” (Lovink en Scholz 2007: 93).

My argument here is that this only applies partially to cyberbullies. Members of cyberbullying are equal insofar as they have equal access to communication technology. Internet penetration in the Netherlands is rather high (the highest in Europe); the average age at which children get their first mobile phone is seven.

Equal participation and collaboration in cyberbullying are two intertwined but at the same time separate categories. Participants of such practice are the perpetrators, the ones who actually start or continue the practice by mail, spam, via instant messages etc. But belonging to the members of cyberbullying can also include “passive bystanders”; for in the case of Happy Slapping, youngsters do not necessary make the videos themselves, but participate in the consumption and distribution of the film. Whether actively or passively, participants contribute to the physical and psychological effects of cyberbullying on the victim. Up until now, there has been much discussion about cyberbullying, centering on the relationship between perpetrators and victims. I believe that we should have a much closer look at the extent to which every child can attribute (actively or passively/ consciously or “harmless” but just for fun attitude) to the outcome and effects of such practice.

Final words on cyberbullying
According to a study on children’s peer culture by William A. Corsaro (1992; 1997), children are active agents who appropriate and transform information from the adult world in the creation of their own locally shared peer cultures, cultures created from situated, face-to-face interaction. Extending this idea to the cyberworld, I would argue that children or teens are not the only ones engaged in cyberbullying. In one word to prove my point: Iggy, and it is a dog. Ellen DeGeneres pleaded on one of her shows to get her dog back. The organization, Mutts and Moms, that took away the dog, got tons of threat mails, including mails that threaten to bomb the owner’s home. It got so out of hand; the organization was shut down for days. No this time, it was not the kids. These are people or adults who watch and probably love Ellen DeGeneres show.

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