Imagine That

Shining light on the real enemy

Laura Mann

Cyberbullying. The word alone is enough to strike fear in the hearts of parents. Keeping tabs on our kids’ social media activities is difficult. Add to that the impossibility of controlling what other people’s kids say about your kid on Facebook and Twitter, and we have an atmosphere that is primed for someone to get hurt.

Bullying at school is bad enough; when it goes online, kids get more brazen with their words. The bullying is difficult to track and even harder to stop.

A new Facebook app called EnemyGraph, developed by Professor Dean Terry and his student team from the University of Texas at Dallas’ emerging media program, has ruffled the feathers of more than a few parents and educators concerned about cyberbullying. EnemyGraph allows people to cultivate an “enemies” list similar to the standard “friends” list. Terry and research assistant Harrison Massey built their app around the idea that “the enemy of my enemy is also my friend.” Just as we bond around similar “likes” on social media, we can also commiserate on our common “dislikes.”

Terry and Massey say they want to start a dialogue about what a Facebook “friend” really is: Do we consider everyone on our Facebook friends page to be a true friend? Has Facebook cultivated a false atmosphere of positivity, where real life isn’t all “likes” and “friends” and happy faces everywhere? And, finally, if we’re starting a dialogue, it is impossible not to mention the question that concerns parents: How will this affect kids?

Love your enemy

It is very easy to see the word “enemy” and assume that Facebook users of all ages will use the app to tear each other down. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, author and chief medical researcher for NBC News, called EnemyGraph “vile, destructive, [and] awful” on the Today show last March, citing concerns about the app’s potential as a cyberbullying tool. Even Sarah Palin weighed in with a dose of outrage.

When we make our dislikes public, we tend to stay away from personal attacks.

However, a closer examination of Facebook reveals a very different picture. Just like the friends list, the EnemyGraph enemies list can be viewed by anyone who has access to the user’s profile. Users can add public pages, for people like musicians and politicians as enemies. They can add regular Facebook users as enemies, too, but in order to add an enemy, the user must first have the enemy on their friends list.

If a bully or a group of bullies decided to add your child as an enemy, that choice would be public, and the bully could easily be identified on your child’s friends list, thus blowing the shield of anonymity that cyberbullies like to hide behind. It is that anonymity that has long been the real enemy here.

Parents who responsibly monitor their children’s Facebook presence could easily locate and eliminate instances of EnemyGraph bullying. By contrast, if a bully who is not on your child’s friends list decides to post hateful comments on their page, the bullying can go undetected and unfettered.

At presstime, EnemyGraph has 10,000 users, after being up and running for a little over a month. Over its short lifespan, EnemyGraph has seen a curious thing happen. Rather than picking on other Facebookers, the light of day that EnemyGraph requires reveals that users have chosen relatively benign targets, like raisins, the color red, certain politicians, and the band Nickelback.

The overwhelming popularity of EnemyGraph has shown that when we make our dislikes public, we tend to stay away from personal attacks, lest it reflect badly on us. This reveals anonymity as the true enemy. It’s most often when the attacks are private, and kids feel as though there will be no repercussions for their actions, that cyberbullying gets out of hand. In the end there is still no substitute for a caring watchful parent.

Imagine that!

Laura Mann recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. Her father Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”

© Michael Mann, 2012, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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