Unplug, Soldier! Too Much Online Time is Hurting the Army

... during the 2009, ... ]

U.S. Army

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... during the 2009, ... ]

A West Point scholar says team bonding — the bedrock of military effectiveness — is being undermined by electronic distractions.

I look forward to dinner with my family every night. It is a time of discussion, reflection and bonding that is one of the center points of our family cohesion. My wife and I are adamant about banning smartphones, TVs, and toys during this time. No Pokémon Go. No Facebook. We hope this practice teaches our children the importance of socialization and community in an increasingly individualistic society.

I was taught the power of group activities not during my own upbringing but by the military. The top general in the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller, recently announced that he wants to curtail cellphone use for Marines — partly for security concerns while deployed to combat and partly for them to get back to martial lives without such devices and distractions. This is a sign of the U.S. military’s ongoing battle with the individuality we see in our society. Without action, they risk losing team bonds that mean life or death on the battlefield.

Mobile devices, the internet, and social media allow individuals to lead online lives disconnected from their environment, community, and teams around them. With their face buried in smartphones and computers, many spend most of their day connected to an online community from which they disconnect only when necessary. Too often, it seems, real life gets in the way of their online life. And it’s not only a generational thing. At playgrounds, I see iParents glued to their handhelds, oblivious to their kids and parental counterparts.

The impact of all of us living in an online world has been identified in professional sports, where NBA players spend their halftimes scrolling through Twitter; in academic institutions, where students’ digital distractions reduce their learning, and on sidewalks in towns across America, where citizens look like they are having staring contests with their mobile devices rather than acknowledging those around them. I am still baffled that rest stops along some highways have been renamed “text stops.”

This growing social norm has made its way to combat. Hoping to ease the burden of constant rotations in and out of combat zones during a protracted war, the military brought much of society to the battlefield. Smart phones, internet cafes, social media, and takeout fast food became as omnipresent in Iraq and Afghanistan as in Middle America.

These new creature comforts are focused on individual soldiers’ wants and motivation rather than on small teams. This individual focus, combined with immediate access to family, friends and communities outside the military, is a path to failure for team building.

This is no small thing: building social cohesion among small teams is the most important thing the military does. History and research have shown that the close bonds formed by soldiers are the dominant reason we fight and prevail on the battlefield.

When new recruits join the service, they are formed into small teams of squads, platoons, and companies. They eat, sleep, exercise, and train with these teams. To take one example, every day of the four years cadets attend West Point, they do what cadets for over 150 years have done: they eat lunch together. They eat family-style at assigned tables with other members of their company. Research backs up the social context to meals. Bonobo chimpanzees, for example, given the choice of either monopolizing food or actively sharing, prefer to release a recipient from an adjacent room and feast together instead of eating all the food alone. Unfortunately, once a West Point cadet joins their new unit as a commissioned officer, they no longer have to eat with their teammates. For lunch, they can visit cafeterias. Some eat with their team, with a buddy, or grab it to go and eat alone.

The Marine general’s desire to just ban smartphones or put the kibosh on the internet in combat is a popular response to the effects of connected devices and social media on small-unit cohesion. But placing large bans on technology for digital natives is probably a futile effort and short-lived. Technology has changed the social practices of the average American.

Instead, the military must continue to build teams through shared hardship and communal living. Make everyday events like eating lunch focused on social bonding and then ban phones and other distractions from those events. These events and practices are the weapons against individualistic technology that threaten building cohesion in highly performing teams. Let’s discuss over lunch.

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