UNC System president pushes to block YikYak from university networks

The majority of students looking at their phones while waiting for the Cat Tran.

In his Feb. 29 president’s report, UNC System President Peter Hans announced his intention to block anonymous social media apps including Yik Yak, Fizz, Whisper and Sidechat from campus networks, citing concerns for the mental health of students.  

Hans claims the apps show reckless disregard for the mental health of young people and provide a platform for anonymous bullying and illegal activity.  

In his report, Hans cited the work of Dr. Johnathan Haidt, a psychologist and author of “The Anxious Generation” and “The Coddling of the American Mind.” His writing frequently centers around the psychological dangers that social media and cell phones present to children and society.  

Hans claims these online dangers have serious implications for college students and their learning environment.  

“Simply put, smartphone screens have crowded out many of the things that make for a good and healthy childhood. Young people have grown up with far less time playing, far less time outdoors, and far less time with friends. They sleep less, exercise less, spend much more time alone, and report staggeringly high rates of depression and anxiety,” he said.  

Throughout his report, Hans frequently references children and the importance of protecting them from these risks, despite most college students being over the age of 18. 

Hans’s mission raises a question regarding the authority of the UNC system to manage this risk on behalf of its students.  

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Dr. Melinda Weathers is an associate professor at Western Carolina University. Her research focuses on new communication technologies. She says that while these anonymous apps present serious concerns, they are not without their advantages.  

“In certain contexts, such as providing a platform for marginalized groups to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal, these apps can be valuable. They can also facilitate connections and support networks among users who may feel isolated in their offline communities,” Weathers said.  

She thinks that the ban is a proactive approach that helps promote a safe learning environment and prevents university resources from being used for accessing content that is inappropriate and occasionally illegal. 

Weathers also touched on the importance of personal responsibility when it comes to these platforms. “Students must recognize the inherent risks associated with engaging with these apps. By exercising responsible usage and adhering to ethical guidelines, they can help mitigate the negative consequences often associated with anonymous social media platforms,” she said. 

Janet Ford, professor of law at WCU, said that blocking these apps raises some First Amendment concerns and could be considered a form of censorship. Apps of this nature provide a platform for free speech, and the UNC system would need to show that the harm the apps present outweigh the value. 

WCU has a green rating with Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. This means WCU policies nominally protect free speech according to the website. 

Student Body President CJ Mitchell said that banning these apps would likely be ineffective. “If you block these apps there will just be others that replace them,” Mitchell said. “One goes down, and another one pops up… We need to think about what we can do to be proactive instead of reactive.”  

Mitchell said the more important element is to change the culture. The Be Kind Initiative is one way the UNC system is attempting to do so. The initiative will see the student body president of each UNC school create a 3-to-4-minute video on what it means to be kind.  

Hans acknowledges that the ban is largely symbolic, as students will likely still access the apps by using their cellular data plan. “My hope is that this action, admittedly a small step, will prompt deeper reflection about how we’re encouraging our students to spend their time, engage with their peers and cultivate a public square that’s worthy of a public university.”