New cell phone policy: The double-edged sword


Vivien Sweet

In 2014, Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, approached commuters on Chicago’s Metra train to ask them for a simple favor: to talk to a complete stranger during their morning ride and report their experience. Some, however, were asked to keep to themselves, and others were told to partake in their usual routine during the commute.

Epley’s results were not particularly surprising.Overwhelmingly, those who engaged in a conversation reported having the most positive experience, while those in solitude found their train ride to be more negative.

On the other hand, when Epley asked another group of commuters to imagine having a conversation with a stranger on the train, they estimated that fewer than half of the strangers they greeted would actively want to respond, and that it would be difficult to initiate a conversation. In Epley’s former experiment, however, none of the commuters who approached strangers to start a conversation were turned down, despite what the second group had predicted.

However, this seems to be a best-case scenario. In fact, when Melissa Dahl of The New Yorker attempted the same experiment on the New York City subway, she only succeeded in creeping out a mother and her daughter, not in starting interesting conversations. What Epley found is the psychological phenomenon that Matthew Hutson of The New Yorker referred to as “pluralistic ignorance: Everyone is willing to talk but thinks everyone else is unwilling.” I think that our student body is guilty of exactly this; hence the new Upper Division Cell Phone Policy.

Our generation is irrefutably a digital one, and, more often than not, we benefit greatly from the technology at our fingertips. We can chat with friends and family oceans away and stay up-to-date on breaking news through dozens of news outlets in a matter of seconds.

Yet at school —in the hallways, in the library, in the cafeteria—, we are so fixated on our phones that passing interactions with our classmates are rare. There is no doubt in my mind that many students would be willing to talk to their peers in between classes, but looking at our phones during this time wards off any potential conversation starters. For example, even I, often find myself subconsciously scrolling through my email when I’m not in the mood to talk to anyone during break.

I believe this notion is for the betterment of our school. As Epley’s study reminds us, just a little bit of human interaction as opposed to solitude results in a happier day, and we need plenty of that during However, while writing this, I found the parts of the new Cell Phone Policy (separate from phone usage) in the hallways to be unsettling. Some of these rules are necessary and sensible; namely, the first three bullet points banning cell phone usage in Gross Theatre and recording and photography in the bathrooms and classrooms the long school day.

However, while writing this, I found the parts of the new Cell Phone Policy (separate from phone usage) in the hallways to be unsettling. Some of these rules are necessary and sensible; namely, the first three bullet points banning cell phone usage in Gross Theatre and recording and photography in the bathrooms and classrooms.

The last two parts of the policy, however, did not sit well with me in light of the racist and homophobic incidents captured on video that resurfaced at Fieldston and Poly Prep last year, and the events that followed. The new policy mandates that “Students may not take pictures or record another student or teacher without the permission of that person,” and “Students may not text or post images, video, or audio recordings of any members of the school community without the permission of those people”—regardless of whether or not the incident occurs off-campus.

It is no secret that the Ivy Preparatory School League has been recently plagued with scandals over the offenses some high school students have committed, often involving the miming of historically offensive behavior and the use of slurs. The reason why this is no secret is that students were able to gain access to videos incriminating these students and share them with the public, forcing the teenagers involved to own up to their actions, and the school to handle the situations accordingly.

In some cases, the release of these videos was liberating to minority groups affected by the offending students’ horrific actions. At Fieldston, for instance, after the video resurfaced, dozens of students held a lock-in on campus until the administration agreed to have a conversation with the leaders of the lock-in regarding the inequality students of color face at school.

Had the school’s current cell phone policy been in place last year at Fieldston, none of the demands of the students of color might have never been voiced. Sharing the incriminating video wouldn’t have been allowed in the first place, even though the video was taken off-campus. Granted, the students at Fieldston were determined to enforce justice, and it is entirely possible that they would have defied the administration’s policies restricting videosharing if they had been in place. By being forced to reconcile with hard evidence of students’ racist actions, Fieldston’s administration changed their school’s policies for the better to create a more safe and caring environment.

Nothing is more important to the well-being of a school’s student body than its collective voice, and Fieldston’s lock-in is living proof of that; however, I fear that with Horace Mann’s new cell phone policy, it may be more difficult for students to express their frustrations involving micro- and macro-aggressions of other students.

By prohibiting members of our student body from taking or sharing videos or photos of incriminating behavior, we may let incidents of bigotry slip unnoticed between the cracks of our community. Technology empowers, rather than inhibits, us in a way that is crucial to maintaining the flourishing diversity of our school. The message of the new Cell Phone Policy has not been lost on me; I sincerely hope that we, as a school, will strive to be more social. However, I urge you to take another look at what exactly the policy mandates and understand what it now takes for our voices to be heard.