Amanda Todd

The digital age and online bullying

The case of Amanda Todd

19 minutes to read
Paper
Lovise Neess
03/10/2018

 

The story of the young Amanda Todd, who committed suicide after being harassed both on- and offline, has led to much debate on bullying. How does the digital age influence social behavior?

 

Introduction

Amanda Todd was only 16 when she ended her life, an act of desperation as a result of a long period of both online and offline harassment. What started as webcam meetings with friends and new cyber friends in the 7th grade, developed into a nightmare after Amanda was persuaded into sending a picture of her uncovered breasts to a stranger. The photo was used to blackmail and press Amanda to produce even more revealing pictures of herself, and eventually, the image of the topless girl had been forwarded to her entire network of friends and family. Needless to say, this was a devastating situation for the teenage girl, who was now forced to face judgment on a big scale, both online and offline. Amanda developed anxiety and depression, and despite several attempts of starting her life over with new schools and friends, the stranger with the nude photo kept on appearing and making it public to her network. This cat and mouse hunt eventually became unbearable for Amanda, and she committed suicide.(Amanda Todd Legacy, 2015 & Grenoble, 2012).

Amanda’s tragic history shows the interplay of online and offline worlds and demonstrates how a classical schoolyard bullying, which traditionally would be limited in time and space, reaches an immense scope in terms of people “watching” and engaging due to digital accessibility.

It is unquestionable that digital technology has enabled the traditional schoolyard bullying to expand its aggression and harassment from the physical to the online environment. This development moreover alters the nature of bullying from concrete and time-defined incidents to uncontrollable in terms of people involved, time and space (Patchin & Hinduja, 2006). Unfortunately, Amanda`s story is not unique (The Top 6 Unforgettable Cyberbullying Cases|NoBullying|, 2013), which is why it is crucial to scrutinize the underlying social mechanisms that enable such horrible outcomes in order to prevent similar incidents. This must be done on both a social as well as an individual level. Based on the tragic case of Amanda Todd, this paper will explore how digital culture influences social structures and identity making, specifically in the context of online bullying.

 

The development of social structures

First of all, in order to understand the social structures of today, it is important to get a clear picture of how these are formed and develop over time. This will be done in the following through a historical overview and sociological theory, which in the end will give some tools for understanding the role of digital culture and how it affects contemporary social structures.          

 

Although “community” is a commonly used term, it lacks proper definition, as it captures both specific and contextually bound as well as more loose social groupings. However, in classical sociology, the term “community” stands for “group-ness” (Miller, 2011). One of the classical sociologists, Ferdinand Tönnies, talks about the concepts of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (association). Gemeinschaft refers to the pre-modern community where the human being was highly dependent on the successful effort and harmonious cohesion of the group. People were connected by blood and kinship, and the social structures were fundamentally characterized by mutual interdependence which required face-to-face encounters. People had multi-dimensional links to one another so that one’s business partner could also be one’s friend and uncle at the same time. 

Seen in relation to digital culture, and social media in particular, “the reflexive ordering of social relations” is highly relevant, as it has never been easier to alter the online communities one belongs to- this can nowadays be done with a mere click.

Gesellschaft describes a rather opposite type of community and represents social structures of the urban society as a result of industrialization. With the possibility to transport people and goods over long distances, the thought of “space” as something rooted and local was altered to a more mobile and impermanent conception. Relationships between people developed to be less interdependent and more one-dimensional, and the chance of facing the same people in different contexts became rarer (Miller, 2011). 

This change in social structures was viewed as something negative by the classical sociologists, and Durkheim particularly pointed out a pathological consequence of the increased individualism, which he labeled anomie. Anomie is understood as an “anti-social individualism”, a destructive state where there is no stable network to ensure social integration and moral regulation; a situation that must be seen as a great threat to social solidarity and cohesion in a community (Jones, Bradbury, & Le Boutillier, 2011). 

Later on, in late modernity, the sociologist Giddens (Miller, 2011) claimed that time and space had become separated, and consequently, relationships had become disembedded. The term 'disembedded' refers to a situation where interaction takes place without face-to-face contact. Giddens moreover suggested that human interaction was now controlled by so-called “abstract systems”. These concepts refer to phenomena similar to the Gesellschaft society described by Tönnies, where human interaction is contractual instead of naturally emerging.

Miller (2011) links these features of late modern life to the digital culture of today. The internet thus becomes a clear example of an “abstract system”, being an environment where people, whom otherwise have no connection and interaction with each other, can meet and exchange information. Giddens additionally mentions the concept of “reflexive ordering of social relations”, which he described as a constant revision of relationships due to the increased access to information and possibility to make one’s own choices (Miller, 2011). According to Miller (2011), the concept of “reflexivity” resembles what other scholars refer to as detraditionalisation, namely a shift from a belief in a pre-given order of things to individuals being able to choose from an extensive range of possibilities. Seen in relation to digital culture, and social media in particular, “the reflexive ordering of social relations” is highly relevant, as it has never been easier to alter the online communities one belongs to- this can nowadays be done with a mere click.

 

Virtual communities and social structures

It has now been established that contemporary society is characterized by high individuality, reflexive relationships and a decrease in physical interaction. These features were seen as a great threat to a harmonious community by the classical sociologists, as they were considered as leading to destructive isolation (Jones et al., 2011). With that in mind, virtual communities may thus offer a sense of belonging and “group-ness” to those who feel alienated in the offline society. Miller (2011) describes certain positive attributes that an online community can offer, such as an environment for people who feel they lack social integration offline. Virtual communities additionally make it possible to specialize one’s relationships by entering online communities with people who share the same type of interests.

 

Rheingold (Miller, 2011) claims that public places such as pubs and cafés, which function as informal spheres of social interaction, are suffering a decline in importance. He moreover argues that virtual communities can substitute as fields of informal interaction. The term “phatic communication” is thus relevant in this regard. “Phatic” communication, which refers to interaction without any significant content, is very characteristic of contemporary online interaction. Instead of being discarded as insignificant, this kind of communication is found to be an important contributor to social cohesion (Varis & Blommaert, 2014).

Theoretically, online communities give one the opportunity to find like-minded people and what Miller (2011) refers to as “freedom of engagement”. It is one’ s personal choice to be active in a certain community, and it is also possible for an individual to leave the online community. As such, virtual communities can be seen as providing positive opportunities for social interaction. However, Miller (2011) also points out that the “pick and choose” feature of online communities is nothing but a continuation of the abstracted communities and disembedded human relationships, as previously mentioned by Giddens (Miller, 2011). Namely, when individuals are able to enter and leave a community in a heartbeat, there is no obligation or mutual interdependence present, which, according to Miller (2011), are essential characteristics of a community. Additionally, the lack of social glue seen in digital culture may also be suggested as a proof of Durkheim’ s worst fear of a highly anti-social society. This point of loose social ties seems to be one of the most crucial ones when examining how online communities allow severe bullying and harassment to take place.

 

The lack of mutual obligation and interdependence

In physical communities, one is bound together with others by mutual obligations and there is consequently a high sense of responsibility to one another as well as solid conflict avoidance. This is because the members are “stuck” together (Miller, 2011). Applied to Amanda Todd’ s case, this could refer to the classroom environment. In this situation, there is also an authority present, namely the teacher. Due to expectations of a certain social behavior in this specific context, the students would most likely act accordingly; otherwise, social sanctions, both formal and informal, would take place. Hence, a face-to-face environment where people are forced to interact, demands social, mutual obligations.

 

This is a point where online communities differ profoundly from the offline ones with their “pick and choose” opportunities (Miller, 2011). However, in Amanda Todd’s case, her offline and online communities were presumably merged, which complicates the matter. This issue will be addressed further below. It is moreover crucial to mention the possibility of being anonymous online and creating fictive profiles on social media. These features can be a very dangerous cocktail when used to harass others, and as such, online communities can be a destructive environment. This was exactly the situation for Amanda Todd; a stranger with an anonymous online profile lured her into revealing intimate details about herself. This stranger also had the opportunity to create several anonymous online profiles under fictive names, which, when abused, can also be a negative aspect of virtual communities.

Amanda Todd made a YouTube video a little over a month before she committed suicide. In the video, she shows a piece of paper that says: “I can never get that photo back”.

Screenshot from Amanda Todd's YouTube video

In her case, this is a very sad, yet very true statement that applies also more generally: once something is published online, it can never be taken back. This proves the point that senses of interdependence, mutual obligation and conflict avoidance as found in physically bound communities are not only less valued in online communities, but it also shows that trust is far more vulnerable. In a physical environment, there are, as mentioned above, informal and formal sanctions when rules are violated and destructive behavior is often stopped. In an online community, there are often no such confrontations, which can even encourage destructive behavior. 

Ethnographic research has argued that the offline and online worlds are two integrated spheres (Miller, 2011). A crucial notion in regard to the Amanda Todd case is indeed the interplay between online and offline communities. What turned out to be catastrophic for Amanda was the fact that the stranger who now owned her nude photo, created a profile on Facebook which eventually published the uncensored image and made it visible to her entire network. Notably, her network on social media was also to a great extent the same as her offline network of friends from school. Hence, in the worst possible way, Amanda was confronted and bullied in both spheres simultaneously (Grenoble, 2012). Moreover, due to the unavoidable fact that what is published on the internet in many cases never goes away, Amanda could never escape from the revealing photo as the stranger kept on appearing no matter how many times she started over.

What turned out to be catastrophic for Amanda was the fact that the stranger who now owned her nude photo, created a profile on Facebook which eventually published the uncensored image and made it visible to her entire network.

It is now well established how social relationships work offline and online; namely, offline communities in general have much clearer conflict avoidance and rules of behavior compared to online communities. A point worth discussing in relation to this particular case is how these integrated communities ended up allowing this gruesome, collective bullying. A specific incident may help to shed light on this issue.

Amanda described in her YouTube video how she was led on by a friend she knew and whom she thought had romantic feelings for her, although he had a girlfriend. She agreed to meet up with him, and one week later Amanda was confronted by his girlfriend and several others who called her mean names and beat her up outside her new school. The whole episode was filmed and naturally it spread on social media. Amanda tried to end her life after this incident but did not succeed. Logging into Facebook after recovering from her suicide attempt, she would find statements that were in favor of her dying and even expressing disappointment over the fact that she had survived (TheSomebodytoknow, 2012). 

The clear interplay between offline and online communities does not only accentuate the schoolyard bullying but also gives it an extreme scope in terms of audience and magnitude of people involved in the harassment. Additionally, people who were not physically witnessing the schoolyard bullying were able to watch, comment on and share the video on Facebook, and the a-spatial online community with little or no mutual interdependence allowed people to leave mean comments at any time. Thus, this is a clear example of how an incident that was initially limited in time and space was taken to an “abstract” sphere.

One way to understand the accumulative involvement in this case is to see it as an expression of people wanting to be a part of the particular “community”. By “liking” and “sharing” this video, people enter a common sphere. Considering the fact that many of these individuals interact in the same offline and online worlds, the value attached to “liking” and “sharing” can very likely be even stronger, and the group cohesion of those “liking” this event additionally becomes physically manifested in the offline sphere (e.g. schoolyard). In contrast, not “liking” would probably lead to exclusion from the group- a situation which is feared and avoided by human beings (Friedman & McNeill, 2013). 

Varis and Blommaert (2014) link online interactions such as “liking and “sharing” to Malinowski’ s “communion”; that is, this type of online action expresses a membership to a certain group. Moreover, the aforementioned “phatic” interaction that is essentially meaningless, in this case suddenly becomes highly significant as a “like” expresses approval of bullying, i.e. a “like” becomes a statement of identity and certain values. The statement is probably in many cases an attempt to be accepted by the group, but nevertheless, is an individual expression. Hence, these theoretical concepts seem to be very applicable to the case of Amanda Todd.

Instead of “communities”, the term “network” is used by scholars such as, for instance, Wellman (Miller, 2011) to characterize the social relations we find in the post-industrial society of today. The multiple and various networks one has access to through one’ s social media account(s) is a typical example of this. Wellman claims that increased mobility together with the existing communication technology (e.g. social media) have led to a situation where social relations have changed from being located to a place to being fully “person-centered and a-spatial” (Miller, 2011). This process is notably an extension of what classical sociologists theorized regarding the transformation from rural to urban societies; that people are becoming more individualized and social relationships develop into a more specialized direction.

This analysis has so far discussed from a historical perspective how social structures in society evolve in a continuous process from interdependent and close-knit ones to individualized ones with loose social ties. The Amanda Todd case illustrates how digital culture enables certain social behavior that would less likely take place in a spatial community based on face-to-face encounters. Moreover, Amanda’ s tragic history shows the interplay of online and offline worlds and demonstrates how a classic schoolyard bullying, which traditionally would be limited in time and space, reaches an immense scope in terms of people “watching” and engaging due to digital accessibility. Lastly, the term “network” was briefly discussed so as to better describe contemporary social relations. In particular, the focus on the individual, namely what Wellman referred to as being “person-centered”, gives a good introduction to the following part of this analysis, which will deal with digital culture and identity-making in relation to the case of Amanda Todd.

 

 

Digital culture and construction of identity

The cultural perception of the “self” and “identity” has changed over the years. All the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers, one finds the idea that mental, inner life is considered superior to physical life. Enlightenment brought about the conception of the human mind as a ‘rational and consistent entity’ (Miller, 2011). In a world full of various temptations, passions and urges, the rational mind was for centuries seen as more stable and consistent than the physical world itself (Miller, 2011, Dooremalen, Regt, & Schouten, 2007). This is what is referred to as an essentialist mode of thinking, and up until contemporary time, people would have the idea that one was born in a certain way, with a certain identity, which could not be changed. However, this way of perceiving one’ s identity was forcefully challenged by new post-modern theories which proposed that identity is something constructed (Miller, 2011). This part of the analysis will scrutinize identity from a social constructionist point of view, explore how it is influenced by digital culture, and evaluate the theory through a discussion of the case of Amanda Todd.

 

The power of discourse

Michel Foucault is one of the influential scholars who claim that discourse functions as means to construct categories of identities. How these groups, or identities, are expressed in discourse, determines how they should be viewed by the world (Jones et al., 2011). As such, there is a substantial element of power in language. Importantly, discourses change over time and are impermanent, and hence the value attached to each identity also changes. One clear example is, for instance, the notion ‘homosexual’ (Miller, 2011). 

The power of discourse seems to offer an insightful perspective when trying to understand the tragic outcome of the case of Amanda Todd. What is known is that for Amanda, Facebook was one of her main social platforms, and it was also there that the harassment took place. She would receive hateful comments en masse. Her immediate authorities (parents, school) knew what was going on, and one may assume that she was told several times that she should not take the resentful comments as accurate representations of reality or herself. However, when Amanda was told over and over again that she was ugly, that nobody liked her and that she should die, this was nevertheless what constituted her social reality. In her YouTube video, what she refers to as unbearable is indeed the very destructive language: the name calling, mean comments and so on. Hence, the repetitive discourse of worthlessness created, from this point of view, a fatal and most tragic outcome and, at the same time, illustrates the power of language.

Construction of a “self-narrative” and identity

In the early days of the digital age in the 1990s, identity construction was mainly text-based, and it was to a great extent possible to maintain anonymity. The online world was seen as a sphere where one could choose to have one or more identities, creating an environment of fluidity. The internet furthermore enabled people to take on an identity which was not possible in the offline world. Thus, there was little integration between online and offline worlds. As for the digital culture and identities of today, it is necessary to return to the aforementioned individualization in society. Miller (2011) proposes that the loose social ties, globalization and lack of binding traditions enable and perhaps even force people to “construct their own biographies and social bonds”. 

Coming back to Giddens (Miller, 2011), the concepts of disembeddedness and de-traditionalisation become highly relevant as digital culture makes it possible for people to shape, reconstruct and enhance certain identity features. Hence, in contrast to only some decades ago, people are more freed from their “predetermined life narratives” such as class, gender and religion (Miller, 2011). Identity also becomes a “reflexive project” as it is subjected to a consumer society with certain pressures within a given culture but ,at the same time, the individual has the power to create his or her own self-narrative.

Giddens moreover emphasizes the importance of trust, due to the reflexivity social relationships are defined by. This is in line with the abovementioned social structures that have become loose and much less interdependent, as Giddens (Miller, 2011) argues that since our social relationships have become voluntary, they are dependent on trust. The crave for trust manifests itself by the high degree of self-disclosure that is seen in, for instance, social media, as a way to obtain genuine relationships, and Giddens uses blogging as an example of this (Miller, 2011). In regards to Amanda Todd, her very vulnerable and naked YouTube video can be in this context interpreted as a channel where people could see her for who she ‘really’ was, perhaps with the hope of developing true friendship. 

Somers (Miller, 2011) refers to the narrative construction of an identity as something contingent on the surrounding networks, influenced by a certain time and culture. Social media such as Facebook prove to be a perfect example of platforms where one can construct a self-narrative. According to Miller (2011), the contemporary social media is now mainly dominated by images, as compared to a decade ago. Moreover, instead of online and offline worlds providing one different identities, the online world now serves as a tool to represent the offline self in the desired manner.

These features are all very applicable in regards to the case of Amanda Todd. In relation to self-narrative, there are a couple of aspects to point out. Namely, her general construction of identity on social media as well as how she combatted the image the online network constructed about her by uploading her YouTube video. For obvious reasons, she does not have a Facebook account anymore but a Google search with her name shows a multitude of images, predominantly “selfies” with a certain posture (accentuating her feminine features), which seems to be a typical behavior for a teenage girl nowadays. This tells us that she aimed to be like everyone else of her age, trying to fit in this particular social context, and to do so, she used social media to construct her own identity. 

When Amanda’ s reputation was destroyed by the nude photo harassment, subsequent judgment and bullying from her network, she took an active step to change the identity that was constructed by her online environment; namely, by producing and publishing the YouTube video where she expressed her own narrative (TheSomebodytoknow, 2012). It is particularly interesting to observe the different functions of Facebook in that regard: it was used both as a platform for bullying, for other people to construct her identity, as well as a stage for her own self-narrative expression.

 

Conclusion

This paper has explored how social structures in society have developed from being interdependent and spatially bound to highly independent, with human interaction based on abstract systems. These features can explain destructive behavior in the digital culture where the lack of mutual obligation and face-to-face encounters make people more inclined to behave resentfully in the online world, as there are little or no consequences of such behavior. It was also made clear that the online and offline spheres are integrated, which can accentuate events that take place in an offline situation when taken to the online sphere (Miller, 2011). This was illustrated by the bullying of Amanda Todd, which took place both in the online and offline worlds. As such, a sociological perspective can shed light on how the digital culture enables severe cyber bullying.

From an individual perspective, it was explored how the digital culture sets the framework for how identity is constructed. Today’ s world is marked by a self-centered focus, where the offline self is enhanced in the online sphere. Social media provide a platform where one can construct a self-narrative, yet, at the same time, be subjected to the construction of one’ s identity by one’ s networks (Miller, 2011). This was seen in the case of Amanda Todd; she posted images of herself aiming to construct an identity for herself, while, at the same time, a reality was imposed on her by the discourse that was used by her network.

Future research on online bullying should focus more comprehensively on these issues since a great part of the literature deals with cyberbullying as an extension of traditional bullying. Research thus calls for specific attention on the technological qualities that allow such harassment (Tokunaga, 2010). Moreover, there is a need to investigate what type of preventive measures should be taken by schools in terms of anti-bullying programs and education as well as firmly establish this responsibility (Li, 2007). Therefore, the solutions have to do with taking social responsibility. Although Amanda Todd’ s story and cases alike are heartbreaking to be confronted with, it is absolutely necessary to do so if we want to stop this horrible trend.

 

Endnotes

[1] The stranger has been identified as a Dutch citizen, and has been connected to, not yet convicted of, cases of child pornography. Canadian authorities work to have him extradited to Canada to face criminal charges related to the Amanda Todd case (Huffington Post, Canada, 2015).

 

References

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