Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Cell-phones, the Internet, and Good Parenting

There is an interesting video at Aish.com by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon. The subject matter is nothing new. In fact this subject has probably been discussed to death both here and elsewhere. Rabbi Salomon’s message is that the internet is not only dangerous but more available and easier to access in secret than ever. That’s because of the cell-phone connection. One can access the worst sites on a cellphone and no one will ever be the wiser. Especially if one does it on a disposable phone which has no records of the sites accessed.

All the filters in the world all cannot prevent this from happening. That’s why kosher cell-phones have been invented and mandated by educators, first in Israel, then in the US and now even in some public schools. Those phones cannot get internet service.

All of these safeguards help. But in the end, they are not foolproof and alone perhaps even worthless. If a teenager wants to view porn on the web he is not going to have a hard time finding a cell-phone that will provide it for him.

The answer by the right wing so far (at least in Israel) is to ban everything and deal severely with violators.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t really help those who need it the most. They will find ways to beat the system and see what they want to see – rules or no rules. They take a chance on being caught and rarely do get caught. In the worst case scenario many of these kids will go ‘Off the Derech’ (OTD). That is the consequence that bans are trying to avoid. But they are failing. The population of OTD is increasing. A stricter and more insulated society does not prevent that. Bans simply do not work.

On the other hand complete freedom to a teenager does not seem to be working all that well either. In fact it is probably a lot worse.

Ever hear of ‘sexting’? It’s the latest fad among teenagers (and even pre-teens). Young girls are convinced to take cell-phone pictures of themselves in various stages of undress –all the way to complete nudity - and e-mail it to their boyfriends. These so-called boyfriends then share those pictures by posting them on a social networking site like Facebook. Ultimately anyone who is ‘friended’ will be able to see it. This is happening in non Jewish public or private schools with teenagers as young as 12 and 13. That is what unfettered cell-phone with internet capabilities can do.

Because of Orthodoxy’s focus on Tznius - I don’t think it is yet happening in any Orthodox schools. But we probably aren’t that far off from it – even Charedi schools. There is an old Yiddish expression which I believe is true. ‘Azoi Vie’s Christilts Zich - Yiddilts Zich. Loosely translated that means that the prevailing culture – good or bad - will eventually creep down into Jewish homes. No matter how Frum or insulated they are.

It does seem to be a bit hopeless here… damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Banning doesn’t seem to work but complete freedom seems to be even worse.

I have long maintained that there is no foolproof way of handling this. But there are better ways and worse ways.

I would suggest that the problem is not in the medium but in the user. And the user does not grow up in a vacuum. The user who abuses the medium in self-destructive ways has been conditioned by his or her environment to somehow to seek that type of thing. I’m not saying it is necessarily the fault of a dysfunctional home or bad parenting – although those are two good examples where kids do go OTD which is what we are really talking about.

There is evidence which has shown that kids from the best of homes - where parents are exemplary - sometimes fall through the cracks. A child may for example be clinically depressed. That may be because of biological factors, environmental factors, or both. If that is the case, the best parent in the world can not help a child without professional help. That is the first thing to eliminate as a cause of any probelm a parent might see in their child.

Aside from recognizing and dealingwith psychological issues like clinical depression - the best defense against the influences of the internet is good parenting. That requires functional, nurturing homes that combines love with firm discipline. It requires instilling good values. It requires knowing when to push them to do better and when to lay back. It requires knowing when to confront teachers and when to support them. And it requires having one’s eyes wide open to what is going on in their children's lives – especially those things that affect them emotionally.

These are basics. If they are effectively put in place they surpass any ban someone might come up with. This does not mean one should simply abandon any protective measures such as filters on internet access in the home. That too is important. But it is secondary to good parenting.

But even the best of parenting can go wrong. Parents should be aware that sometime bad things happen no matter what. A good child will access a bad website and may go OTD. Good parenting requires that even in those circumstances parents play an important role. A good parent will accept the reality – while not condoning the behavior. A good parent will never withdraw love from their children.

What does a parent do if a child rebels? First it is important to know if they suffer from clinical depression. This is a condition that often goes undiagnosed until it is so overwhelming that that treatments becomes extremely difficult if not impossible. Depression is treatable and the earlier it is diagnosed the better the prognosis.

Another very important thing to do is not to box your children in to a narrow slice of Yiddshkeit if they are not doing well in it. If they are troubled - open them up to Hashkafos other than your own. If one is Charedi and a child has had bad experiences in his Charedi schools try a modern Orthodox one – even if is coed. It may end up being a lifesaver to that child.

I know of Charedi families who had a child or children that hated their Charedi schools and wanted to be transferred to a less competitive religious environment. They were sent to coed religious high schools and they thrived – becoming exemplary Orthodox Jews in adulthood. And I know Charedi parents who refused to send their problem children anywhere but other Charedi schools and their children are lost.

The bottom line is that banning cell-phones or similar bans is not going to prevent kids form going OTD. Only good parenting has a chance. It may not prevent it completely but it is a far better bulwark against it than bans are. Knowing your children, teaching them values, being open minded in dealing with their problems are the first lines of defense against problems like these.

A common sense approach to the internet in the home by installing some of the good kosher filters is certainly advisable. But without good parenting all the filters, bans, and warnings in the world - like Aish.com video by Rabbi Salomon - will not work.