Childhood as a social construct is idealized and romanticized in ways that perhaps skew our judgment toward an ugly sentiment. We say, “Ah, to be young again,” and we look back fondly on our own respective childhood memories. So it is only natural that we are disturbed when our young begin to act in unfamiliar ways. But this feeling of disillusion is based on a nostalgic misappropriation of our own memories. Because it is a stage when our minds first give birth to thoughts, when we are first given words to describe this thing we call life, we think of childhood as an innocent period, almost outside of time rather than a fixed set of points in the chronology of our lives. The sad truth is it was never all that good. We just weren’t cognizant of certain truths. That is why we look back on our childhood with fondness. We didn’t know of the dark horrors out there. We try to teach our children moral accountability, not to lie, not to be cruel. These are the rudimentary stepping-stones of an ethical framework. So what happens when that very framework is threatened? What can be more challenging to the status quo than to alter the way children think about the notion of self? When we introduce children to the idea of anonymity, for example, what grave things will come in the future?
A number of anonymous texting applications have become prevalent around the country, creating a controversy with regard to use among the nation’s youth. Yik Yak, one of the more prominent mobile apps in question, works by allowing users to view a live feed of messages posted by people within 5 to 10 miles of their location. The app was originally intended for college students, but it has since become popular among high school and even middle school students. Yik Yak encourages a no holds barred type discussion, touting a slogan that mirrors the anything-goes branding efforts of Las Vegas ad men: “What happens on Yik Yak, stays on Yik Yak.” While seeming to ensure privacy to users, the app cannot control what sort of information is divulged through its system. The anonymity granted by this application makes it ripe for potential use as a cyberbullying tool. School administrators at Lake Forest High School in Illinois claim that students are using the app to verbally abuse one another. The principal released the following statement in a message to parents:
“I am writing to inform you of a mobile app that is harmful to students and to the positive school culture of Lake Forest High School. I am also writing to ask your support in addressing this serious issue. One of the hallmarks of Lake Forest High School is our supportive environment and our commitment to the well-being of one another. Collectively, we have an opportunity and responsibility to ensure to maintain our positive school climate.”
Of course, one would be hard-pressed to have ethical qualms with this principal’s efforts to harbor a positive environment at his school. And it would be difficult to make a legitimate case arguing that his efforts to suppress the use of this anonymous texting application are in any way malicious, illegal or unconstitutional, as some might argue. After all, what happens on school grounds is ultimately his administration’s responsibility. In light of such claims, Yik Yak recently announced that the company would disable service in the Chicago area. However, I would ask: What defines a positive school environment? Why is the concept of anonymity inherently negative?
The idea that one can act without accountability can be traced back to the writings of Thomas Hobbes. The state of anonymity, such as the one employed by these mobile apps, can be viewed as a new kind of state of nature, such as the one identified by Hobbes. He described his state of nature as “the war of all against all,” and indeed it is not a pleasant way of life. This just so happens to describe rather aptly strings of anonymous commentary on the Internet; a cursory glance on the YouTube comments of any popular video will tell you that much. What was Hobbes’ solution to the state of nature? Simply put, he theorizes that humanity instituted a social contract to regulate our interactions with one another. Likewise, the notion of digital citizenship very well could be a viable means of helping children understand the consequences of their actions in this digital age.
This issue of anonymity is firmly rooted in our cultural understanding of how we communicate with one another. Like the idea of childhood, the way people communicate can also be thought of as a construct. It is a construct that is constantly in flux with the ever changing nature of technology. Consider for a moment the fact that before the advent of caller ID, every single phone call was essentially ‘anonymous,’ in the exact same way these texts are. Was it a social crisis that kids were able to prank call one another with no practical threat of exposure? Certainly not. In the early days of the telephone, there wasn’t much one could do about a prank call or a heavy breather. Likewise, there was no way for a caller to pre-emptively identify him or herself. But as the social norm of caller ID became widely accepted, the notion of anonymity became taboo in this regard. “Unknown caller” turned into a menacing term. This advancement in technology manifested an ethical imperative. What was once an innovative supplement to communication technology is now the standard. Practically every cellphone employs caller ID technology. Over time, advancements in communication technology will further change our ethical landscape in ways that may be difficult to imagine.
The problem of anonymity — if it can be construed as a problem — is only going to increase as technology advances and methods of encryption exponentially abound. That said, I don’t believe we are giving children enough credit. Humans are the most adaptable species on the planet. And we are most adaptable in our childhood years. Ultimately, we are failing the youth by limiting their access to technology, just as a parent who bans literature from the house is failing their child in integral ways. An ethical framework is only useful insofar as its ability to serve its function; for example, to regulate society. Once that framework becomes ineffective for this purpose, it’s time to rethink its inner workings.
Under the shadowy visage of anonymity, there is no personal accountability. But this is neither good nor bad. The methods employed by bullies, be they cyber or otherwise, are hardly irrelevant to the matter at hand. Is it any more harmful that an anonymous user calls a little girl fat, rather than, say, a mean little boy staring her right in the face? The effect is assumed to be the same. So what’s the morally relevant distinction? Is it because in one scenario we have the clear ability to place blame, while in the other, blame is nebulous? The issue is personal accountability.
But when a person displays behavior similar to that of a bully, that behavior is likely caused by more deeply seated issues. Perhaps it’s a series of trauma that makes the bully more apt to lash out. Or maybe it’s a particular combination of genetic codes that makes the bully predisposed to aggressive behavior. It very well could be a combination of both, but the point is that personal accountability is not precisely relevant. In other words, it’s not the bully’s fault. The bully is a child. He or she has little agency in such behavior. The child’s behavior is a symptom of a larger problem. Instead of playing the blame game, it seems more prudent to address the root causes of what we perceive as bullying. What drives people to cruelty? This is the question we should be asking.
A culture of anonymity demands that material be judged based on the merit of its content, rather than the identity of the speaker. There is certainly a draw to that idea, but perhaps it is a paradigm too obtuse for schoolchildren. Or perhaps that is what school administrators want you to think. Because when content is judged based on its own merit, rather than an appeal to some authority, the content itself must be compelling. And when challenged, school administrators often don’t have much to say other than, “Because I said so” or “Because that’s the way it is.” Instead of opening the hearts and minds of students, administrators are so quick to give in to the mediocrity of the situation and defer shallowly to their own authority. Under the guise of a “positive school environment,” they displace accountability in the same way as anonymous texting does. That is not a message we should perpetuate to formative minds.
The concept of anonymity is inherently radical because our entire society is based on the notion of self (i.e., that our actions are our own) caused by our conscious decisions. But is it all that clear? We presume one ought to be held entirely accountable for one’s own words and actions. Society is hinged upon that kind of personal responsibility. But children are more perceptive than we would like to think. They can and regularly do recognize hypocrisy. We propagate this notion of accountability to our young in an act of willful ignorance, all the while turning a blind eye to clear injustices in the adult world. This is the dissonance that helps to create bullies. What is a child to believe in face of that kind of hypocrisy?
It seems that the focus here is on the technology itself, rather than the students’ behavior. This is perhaps because the prevalence of a nefarious new app is far more easily addressed than the issue of bullying as a whole. So why not face it head on, rather than take concern with the fleeting trends of mobile apps? Instead of addressing the fundamental issue, school administrators have simply attempted to institute a prohibition of sorts on this new application. This is nothing more than laziness and intellectual cowardice. And it seems that in some cases, businesses are complying with this mandate. But we all know how well prohibition works with respect to social control. Administrators even freely admit that they cannot control what students do on their own phone networks. We can use the guise of anonymity for good just as it is used for evil. Instead of discouraging the app’s use among students, what if administrators encouraged a more thoughtful discourse through the app itself? Indeed, isn’t this a prime opportunity to teach kids an important life lesson? We should be telling them to call out thoughtless cruelty and refuse to reciprocate in the same manner.
Instead of shunning this new mobile app because of its potential for wrongdoing, perhaps school administrators ought to ask students a more thought-provoking question: What is to be gained from anonymity? With every new advancement in technology, there is an opportunity to learn something new about human nature. Sure, one can throw out a needlessly cruel message from across the hall and it will be a drop in the ocean of cruel messages spouted since the beginning of humanity. It’s a lesson students would quickly learn once exposed to this new avenue of communication technology — that one can find ways to transcend the noise. And therein lies the key to survival in the 21st century.