Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Does the Internet Cause Cancer?

It is an act of desperation. That is what the latest volley in the war against the internet is by Charedi leaders in Israel. There are now ads up in Charedi communities (in the form of posters and ads in newspapers I assume) blaming all societal ills on internet use. Among them is that internet use causes cancer. This is supposedly a quote from the highly respected Israeli Gadol and Posek, Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner. Other maladies are also blamed on the internet by other great rabbinic figures in Israel .

Of course no one really believes that there is any physical connection between internet use and cancer. Certainly not Rav Wosner. What he is saying is that the Torah world’s use of this medium is so spiritually damaging that God’s is sending us a message not to use it by increasing cancer among our people.

By now everyone knows about the dangers of the internet. They are very real. As I’ve said many times, I see some of the same problems that rabbinic - and many other even secular - leaders do. But most people also know the benefits of the internet. They are just as real. And people are not going to give up those benefits. Not only that but living life in the 21st century will almost certainly require more internet use as time goes on.

Most rabbinic leaders in America know that and have not come out with anything quite like this in their admonitions about it. The attitude here among Charedi Rabbanim is that one is better off without it, but that it is unrealistic to completely ban it. So they advise extreme caution and minimal use even while condemning it in the strongest possible terms.

I have to ask: How does connecting internet use to cancer make victims of cancer and their families feel? What do they think when they hear that increased internet use by the community as a whole is responsible for their personal suffering? Is this really the best way to discourage internet use? By saying it causes cancer? All the good intentions in the world cannot undo the psychological damage that might be done to the current victims of this illness.

Can anyone imagine what a child with cancer who may have once gone on to the interent might be thinking after hearing this? Or a parent of such a child who once paid a bill online might be thinking? For those who see such pronouncements by Gedolim as virtually Godlike – it must generate a tremendously depressing – guilt laden feeling among them.

It is one thing to talk about how evil the internet is. But to blame the internet for cancer goes way too far. And it will obviously not work. Internet use is now pervasive in the Torah world both here and in Israel. The internet is here to stay and its use will keep increasing among all types of Jews.

I have to wonder what’s next. I do not see rabbinic leaders relenting on this issue. But at some point they will have to. They will realize that just like all technological advancements that are beneficial to mankind the internet is here to stay. Ultimately they will have to come around and treat it like the tool it is.

I often hear the argument being made that sure! …the internet is a valuable tool. But the dangers far outweigh the benefits. Too many people are getting ensnared into porn by the internet. Families are broken up. Children go OTD. That makes the benefits not worthwhile.

But if the same argument were applied to automobiles we would all be using a horse and buggy to get around. Over 8800 teenagers died in 2009 in automobile accidents! But just like automobiles are too valuable to discard - so too is the internet. If danger were the only thing one looked at when considering the use of new innovations - we would still be living in the Stone Age. Fire is dangerous too. Try living in this world without it.

So how do we protect ourselves from the dangers? We do the same thing we do with fire. We learn to use it responsibly and build societal protections to prevent being hurt by it. Just like safety features are built into cars, so too can we build them in to Internet use. I need not list them here. Been there and done that. And so have many other responsible people from all walks of life – from Charedi Rabbanim to the non Jewish world. These are all good ideas.

We should take heed of the dangers and apply the proper precautions. But to discard it completely is unrealistic and telling people that it causes cancer is in my view counterproductive -and possibly very hurtful to cancer victims and their families.