Wednesday, September 05, 2018

The Chicago Assifa

Last night the Orthodox Jewish community of Chicago came together at one gigantic gathering. There were nearly 3000 men women and teenagers there for one purpose. To address one of the greatest challenges of our time: The negative impact of technology in our lives.

The people sitting on the same huge dais were pulpit rabbis, Poskim, Roshei Yeshiva, and Roshei Kollel from all streams of Orthodoxy. From Modern Orthodox,  to Charedim, to Chasidim.  The audience consisted of the same. Speakers included 2 prominent  right wing Roshei Yeshiva and a world recognized psychologist who teaches in Yeshiva University’s graduate school. They all have the same message. Technology is ruining our lives. 

The very thing that was supposed to enhance our lives has caused innumerable problems in the world of Orthodoxy. Much like it has for the rest of the world. We are not alone. There is no getting away from that simple and verifiable fact. There is no segment of our community that is unaffected by it. No matter how right wing or how they try to insulate themselves from it. It is there and harms us all.

Without saying so, the speakers seemed to concede that what was tried in the past is not working – and will not work. And all the haranguing against it in the world is at best a  waste of time and at worst counter-productive.  

Right wing communities that used to be successful at filtering out the outside world can no longer do that. There is now recognition that technology is here to stay and we are all going to use it regardless of how Frum - or what kind of lifestyle we choose. No matter how isolated we choose live. 

What was emphasized instead was not the use of the medium. But the abuse of it. No one there had to  be told about the positive side of technology. By now even the biggest opponents of technology  realize that painting all of technology with the broad brush stokes of pure evil will not work because it is  not true.We all know that technology is not evil. We know what the benefits are. And they are many. But what we all by now there are the detriments too. Many of them. 

And yet this technology is pervasive among us - much the same as it is in the rest of the world. 

Just to mention a few of the well known problems associated with technology is the social networks so many of participate in - using our smartphones. Abusing technology along these lines have - among other things - led to family dysfunction, divorce, addiction, substance abuse, bullying, and even suicide. All of which been increased by the advances of technology. 

What was once the blissful ignorance of cloistered communities - that was so attainable if one chose to live that way – is no longer attainable. Now it is available in an instant right in the palm of your hand.  

Aside from all of the above-mentioned increased dysfunction - there is a more insidious dysfunction taking place in less obvious ways. Ways that might even seem innocent by even our own standards. Smartphones have literally taken over the lives of countless numbers of us. People of all ages and all Hashkafos. No one is immune to the draw of a smart phone. Mostly in the form of texting. 

Texting might seem harmless enough. In fact its very purpose is to make our lives easier. Instead of having long telephone conversations before we get to our point, a text message makes that point right away, saving tons of time that might be spent in idle conversation on the phone. 

But that is not what has happened. Texting has become so addictive that some of us check our phones repeatedly in the span of an hour for mindless unimportant messages. We then respond to those text immediately. And then respond again - back and forth in what seems like endless texting conversations. Studies have shown that serious injuries have increased in because of this phenomenon. I see it all the time. Most of us know about the automobile accidents that occur when texting while driving. And yet it seems like everyone does it as though nothing will happen to them. Until it does.

But accidents happen even to people that text while walking, - looking down reading texts or sending them instead of looking forward – crossing streets against the light and getting hit by a car. Walk into any public area where a lot of people are present  (such as an airport) and you will see a huge number of people looking at their phones. No one looks straight ahead anymore.

And then there is something called half Shabbos.  Some teenagers that are otherwise observant - even from Charedi families - are so addicted that they will answer a text on Shabbos!

Then there is the problem of what looking at screens all day long does to a child’s brain development. And yet so many very young children are given smart phones to own or use. Some even as young as 4 months old. Studies have shown that mental health and growth is negatively affected.  Attentions spans are shortened, and the ability to concentrate for any extended period of time is impaired. 

Studies have also shown that there is a direct correlation between mental health and use of this technology. The more one uses it, the less happy they are. The more time someone spends on social media the more likely they will suffer depression. It doesn’t take all that much to figure out why. It is a lot easier to bully people anonymously than it is when they know who you are. It also a lot easier to bully someone in virtual reality even if they do know you - than do it face to face.

I  think most people already know these things. The problem is that nothing is being done about it. We are all just letting it happen. We are passive.

Parents still give their children smart phones well before they should. Often parents are terrible role models in this regard. If a child sees a parent checking their smartphone all day long, what lessons are they learning? How many of us will sit at a dinner table with our phones right next to us – reading a text or typing one – oblivious to anything going on at the table? I’ll bet an awful lot of parents are addicted to it that way more then they even realize. Is there any surprise that family dysfunction has increased because of this technology? 

As one the Charedi speakers put it last night, we are supposed to be better than that. We are an Am Bechira –  chosen by God to be an Or LaGoyim – a light unto the nations! And yet instead of setting examples of behavior in this regard, we are participating in the same misuse of technology that everyone else is. Instead of leading, we are following.

These are some of the things mentioned at last night’s gathering. If there is one criticism I have it is that there were too few concrete solutions offered other than our sheer will power to change.  Perhaps though that is really because that is all any of us can ultimately do. The only way to undo the damage is to muster the will to do it. To make the difficult changes in our lives that will reduce the harmful effects of technology on us and on our children.

That said there are some things that can be done. One of the speakers gave a concrete example of how one community of determined parents dealt with it.

He asked rhetorically, what is the right age to give a child a smartphone? His response based on research is - the later the better. The later a child gets a smartphone, the better he did in school and the more well adjusted they were in life. 

How does a parent whose children see all of their friends having smartphones deal with that? That is one of the biggest battles going on in homes that want to restrict smartphone use by their children. 

One community decided to do something about it. Parents of children about to go into 4th grade knew the magnitude of the problem and it was agreed by all to attend a meeting about it. They decided as a group that none of these 4th graders would be getting a phone. They kept to their word. one of those children had phones that year. Lo and behold they got through the year unscathed without the need for the typically huge clashes between parents and children who see their peers with phones and feel deprived without one. Appreciating he success they had that year, parents met again before their children went into 5th grade and made the same pact. Same wonderful results.

This was a very smart and very successful enterprise that in my view should be undertaken by all day school parents regardless of Hashkafa.

But what about us? What about the ‘adults in the room’  that are supposed to ole model behavior for our children? That will take will power too.

How to accomplish this is beyond the scope of this post. I’m not sure I could provide any answers even if it was within the scope of this post. I can only speak about myself.

I have a smartphone. And I have plenty of apps downloaded. I use them all. But I am not addicted to any of them. I have a Facebook page. Burt I rarely post anything on it. I never spend any real time there. I never text anyone unless the message is  important. I abhor small talk. I do not respond immediately to all texts. And sometimes I do not respond at all. I do not walk around with my phone in my hand. I do not check my phone constantly for messages. I do not take it out of my pocket in Shul. Sometimes I don’t even take it with me. I rarely not share pictures on Facebook and don’t always respond when one is sent to me – often not even looking at it until long after it was sent. I use my phone judiciously. 

Smartphones are a wonderful invention… a wonderful advance that has in fact made my life a lot easier in so many ways. But that is key. If you become addicted to it it does not make your life easier. It makes it harder and in some cases can ruin it.

It’s not that I have an unusual amount of self control. I don’t. But I do have common sense and I refuse to become a slave to it. I have a life beyond my smartphone and I want to live it without distractions. 

So, yes! …use technology to improve your lives. But don’t ever let it control you. Which it seems to be increasingly doing In far too many cases to our detriment. Both as individualist and as a community.  If we don’t change our ways things will only get worse.