Technology is here to stay and will only get stronger. So how do we guarantee that our children will also only get stronger? An article by Rabbi Shlomo Sternberg.
By Rabbi Shlomo Sternberg
Originally printed in the MUST magazine
START THE CONVERSATION
The discussions we have with our children about technology always need to be in a calm and loving tone. Our love for our children is their oxygen. As much as we need to be determined, we also need to be sensitive to their needs.
If our kids come home and say, “I’m the only nerd in my class who doesn’t have WhatsApp,” we must try to understand their struggle.
The approach must come from Chassidishe pride. Just as shluchim do this for their children around the world, we can make our child feel proud to be different. If they feel deprived, they will be resentful, and this can cause more damage than the device we are withholding.
If we are doing something with an emes, if we have good intentions, if we are a dugma chaya, our children will usually go along with us. We can’t keep saying, “Spend time with your siblings, come out of your room, put your phone down,” while we are checking our messages.
In Eicha it talks about how mothers cooked their children alive. Handing our children a device is basically cooking our children alive. But you know what? Taking the devices away is also cooking them alive. It’s a battle that doesn’t end well. Which is why it’s so crucial to educate ourselves before we give them anything.
With technology, if we see extreme use, we have to keep in mind that they may be running away from something. They may be escaping pain. And they are using technology as a distraction.
If a kid has a mosquito bite, you can handcuff them so they don’t scratch, but they will find other ways to scratch. If a child is in pain, taking away their technology will not help. They will find other ways to escape the pain.
Decades ago, physical labor was a part of our lives, until cars and machinery took over. Now we sit at desks all day and have become out of shape. Yet doctors won’t say, “go back to plowing by hand”—but they will encourage us to exercise.
We can apply this to our brains. The harder we need to work, the more our brains will develop. If we use a calculator app, something dies in our heads. Homework used to be a brain exercise—now we just google. If we have apps that socialize for us, are creative for us, and remember things for us, our brains can basically rest in peace.
All this affects our ability to focus. As children we probably all remember sitting in our classrooms with a teacher sitting at the front of the class. No jokes or stories. With our kids, their brains are so overstimulated they cannot focus unless the teacher is an entertainer.
In 2000, a typical American’s attention span was only 3 seconds longer than the dumbest fish on the planet. In 2015, the average American’s attention span was only 8 seconds—one second less than a goldfish. Screens are killing attention.
During the preteen years, a child’s brain is so vulnerable. Every hour a preteen spends gaming raises the likelihood of OCD by 13%. Gaming has them do things over and over again, better and better, and this does permanent damage to their brains.
Social skills do not mean posting pictures and getting likes. Social skills mean having meaningful conversations, being honest, and knowing how to strike up conversations at weddings.
BACK TO BOREDOM
One mistake we make is to confuse boredom with laziness. It’s not true. Boredom is the greatest gift Hashem gave us. Boredom is the cause of productivity.
The more soul, the more boredom. A domem, a rock, needs to do nothing. A tzomeach, a plant, needs to grow but not much else. A chai, an animal, needs to move around but they don’t get bored like humans do. And, of course, the most bored human is a Yid. The more capability we have in our souls, the less satisfied we are when we are not constantly using that energy.
Once upon a time, when kids were bored, they’d hock a chainik, learn a new language, make up a new game, or meet a new friend. A skill would be developed thanks to their boredom. Today, when a child is bored, the only thing they develop is their ability to massage a screen.
All of this digital entertainment gave us a way to defuse the pain of boredom without actually growing. Our neshama is searching for growth, for friendship, for meaning, and instead of feeding the hungry baby we are putting in a pacifier.
Dopamine gives us a high. When acquired normally it’s a healthy high, and it keeps us motivated. If we care for our family, we get 100 points. If we try something new, we get 50 points. If we take a healthy risk, we get 200 points. The reward is in proportion to the effort we put in.
But then there are super stimulants that will give our brains 1,000 points at a time. Way more than any normal activity. No wonder we are drawn to our phones. Quick, huge doses of dopamine with barely any effort.
WHY FILTERS MATTER
Here’s a secret: When you get a new phone, your old phone STILL works. So many kids yarshen their parents’ old phones and no one notices. It’s an old, outdated model but it has Wi-Fi! And kids always know your password. (If you ever forget it, just ask them.)
The younger they are the more they know. Just because you can’t get around something, doesn’t mean your kids can’t.
Filters, good filters, are worth what they cost. We pay more for kosher food, we have to pay more for kosher internet.
Apps are created to be addicting. A successful app is an app that will keep people on it for as long as possible. We cannot expect our kids to control themselves. Being on the web without a filter is equivalent to being on the highway, 90 miles per hour, a few feet away from the cliff, without breaks.
Addiction to inyonei taaveh is the worst. No one is immune. Especially for boys. If a boy is healthy, it should be a challenge for him, and so he needs a filter. It’s not doing them a favor to “trust” them. There is endless physical, emotional, and spiritual damage to surfing an unfiltered device.
At home, we parents are the principals. When we hear that in school there’s a teacher who is too rough, or we hear that there’s a small chance that a teacher could be abusive to our kids, we call school and we want that teacher OUT! Fired. Only on a sfek sfeka.
Imagine some very friendly strangers knocking on your door offering free entertainment for your kids. You can even leave the house or take a nap! We would never actually leave our kids alone with these crazy people who we never met. Who knows what they might do or say? And yet, we often don’t think twice before leaving them at home with these same “friendly strangers” entertaining them through a screen on our unfiltered entertainment.
Our standards keep on changing. There is something about the internet that makes us lose our sensitivity. Newspapers, TV, and movies were never allowed in the house, but websites with all these things and more are allowed without hesitation. The red lines are constantly moving.
It’s a good cheshbon hanefesh to make with ourselves and our teens. Where is our red line today? Where was it a year ago? If we don’t put something solid in place, something that feels off-limits today will feel comfortable tomorrow.
Finally, it’s okay to be open with our kids—to say that it’s a struggle for us as well. To juggle our life and limit our usage. To say, I understand you. We’re in this together.