UNC Can’t Ban Its Way to Civility

Removing bad apps from campus networks fails to address the underlying problem.

One of Ronald Reagan’s most memorable quips was that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Terrifying indeed, yet in modern times there are three words that rival President Reagan’s witticism: “Somebody do something.”

Twenty-four-seven connectivity has led to a transformation of society that has brought forth a lot of good, from the democratization of information to the convenience of online banking and shopping. But with those advances has come a dark side. I can take the rest of my allotted 1,000 words to list those issues, but, to save space, a short list that includes increased sleep disturbances, new forms of postural distortion, diminished social interaction, and lessened attention spans will do just fine.

How exactly will UNC’s ban work given that the schools can control only their own internal networks?Well, almost fine. As this article is directed at people desiring to read about educational issues, we have to broach the subject of how this 24/7 culture affects the social lives of young people in the educational system. More specifically: how, in this case, it led to the UNC System’s plan to ban the social-media apps Yik Yak, Sidechat, Fizz, and Whisper due to those apps’ apparent disregard for cyberbullying.

Because somebody had to do something, right?

The good libertarian in me should now spend the rest of my space here condemning the decision. Live and let live. The apps likely have as much, if not more, positive content than negative. Those who do the censoring are rarely the good ones. People should be free to say harmful things so we know who they are. Furthermore, how exactly will this ban work given that the schools can control only their internal networks? They cannot control student activity on cell networks or through off-campus internet providers.

I could drone on ad nauseam. It’s not that hard to be reactionary on this issue. It’s quite easy to write such an essay if that’s what readers want to hear. Perhaps these schools should just ban cell phones while they’re at it. Then again, I may be a hypocrite, as I like that idea.

Before you click away, note that I said that I “like” the idea. I’m not going to advocate for the practice. Yet reimagining the role of the cell phone in students’ lives will contribute much more to the reduction of deviant online behavior than another somebody-do-something, feel-good ban, which only enables the powers that be to ban more things they don’t like in the future.

The premise behind the ban is more than just concerns about a few lesser-known websites. The issue speaks to a larger societal problem. Until most young people’s social interactions revolved around the latest social-media platforms, social life was organized around face-to-face interactions—play dates for young kids and “stay out until the streetlights turn on” for those past puberty. “Virtual” communication took place over telephone. By the time those kids entered young adulthood and arrived at college, the military, or work, they had many years of face-to-face social interactions behind them. Even a shared 56k modem and AOL Instant Messenger were not enough to usurp the in-person get-together.

Sadly, rapid advances in personal technology have primed the ground for a more solitary generation of youths. These last few generations have grown up with easy access to a discourse that was much more asynchronous and oftentimes anonymous. I see this firsthand with my common professorial observation of heads in phones rather than talking among neighbors before my classes start. This detached environment is fertile ground for cyberbullying.

Rapid advances in personal technology have primed the ground for a more solitary generation of youths.Before I go further, allow me to state something obvious, because I am no flower child. Bullying has always existed. The posturing of the strong and weak in society is part of human nature, and learning to develop self-confidence within that context goes a long way towards success in all aspects of life. Yet that sentence is easier to write than it is for many to achieve. What complicates the matter is that, in the past, both bully and victim had to be physically present for the dance to take place. Avoidance was always a possibility when the aggressors were not physically around. Assuming the tragedy of a broken homelife did not exist alongside a stressful social life, a bullied young person could retreat to friends, family, or at least some good offline entertainment on an 8-bit Nintendo. He wasn’t going to be harassed by Mario. Unfortunately, present-day social life rarely offers the option of retreat, as even the video games nowadays have a “chat” feature where vulnerable people can be preyed upon.

Thus, no one is banning their way to civility. There will always be another platform, especially when the adults who are the “banners” have the same issue as the “ban-ees.” No, I’m not going to accuse college administrators of bullying without hard evidence, but it’s a safe assumption that most of them are as addicted to their phones as their students are. That is the meta-issue behind any discussion of bullying and civility, and it’s a problem with no easy fix.

It’s easier to reminisce about less-technological times than it is to make a change that moves the needle, especially since I could also list those ways that phones offer a net benefit. But this does not mean that we should just ignore the dark side. Fortunately, there is a slow trickle of a movement towards a balanced phone life (see the work of Cal Newport and Catherine Price as great examples), and ideas from that realm apply to the UNC issue that motivated this essay.

For example, something I found personally useful from Newport’s book Digital Minimalism is the notion of the phone foyer. This tactic involves simulating with modern phones the old phones that were corded to the wall. Sounds silly until I explain the payoff. Just having a phone nearby during times of boredom leads to a host of negative phone behaviors. Placing the phone on a charger in the same spot each time one arrives home creates a layer of friction between the boredom and the action of using the phone to quell the boredom. When I do this, if I need to use my phone, I must get up. Often, the thought of doing so is enough to make me realize there’s nothing on the phone I need at that moment.

A UNC System that wants to target cyberbullying should start with the phone culture on campus.Because I am not an authoritarian, when I learned about the proposed ban at UNC, my thoughts were that students needed more options, not less. Taking something away will only make it more intriguing. Schools would be better off investing in phone-charging lockers that act as “foyers” where students can park their phones and get out into nature, or at least do something offline for more than five seconds. Within my sphere of influence (my classroom), I attempt to practice what I preach. Rather than “demanding students put their phones away,” I invest a few minutes at the beginning of my small- to mid-sized classes in what I term a “mental palate cleanser.” I essentially let students play for the first 10 minutes of class. Sometimes, I pass out a deck of cards. Other days, it’s a word puzzle. The traditionalists may scoff at this, but, given that students likely have a scrambled attention span from having their heads in their phones immediately before my class, I’d rather clear their minds for 10 minutes if it yields a greater focus for the remaining time.

Short of mandating boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as required courses (great ideas, by the way), a UNC System that wants to target cyberbullying should start with the phone culture on campus. Culture change is not easy, it does not happen overnight, and some ideas will not work, even if they sound good on paper. But students (and, for that matter, administrators) need more analog time. The best solutions have that end in mind.

Jason Fertig is an associate professor of management at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville.