Fall 2015: Responses
For this Issue’s Questions, click here.
Dr. David Pelcovitz: Isolation versus Inoculation: Guidelines for Parents in Meeting the Challenge of Digital Technology
Parents, not schools or community leaders, must assume the primary responsibility for helping children manage technology use intelligently. However, recent generations have seen a drastic diminution in the level of parents’ comfort in employing a responsible balance between love and limits in all areas of parenting. When providing limits, the most important aspect of parental supervision is conveying parental values and not simply rules, especially through modeling proper use of technology. Particular issues deserving parental attention include protecting children from inappropriate content and preventing the various effects of overstimulation.
The Internet has facilitated increased Torah learning in mnay ways, providing many more options to find a derech in learning that matches one’s proclivities. On the other hand, it is easier than ever for fully committed Orthodox Jews to find themselves attracted to different streams of Orthodox thought and practice that challenge the principles of their upbringing. The Internet has also led to a wave of mockery and weakened communal leadership. Many community leaders simply choose to say little or nothing publicly, and the community suffers from the increased “democratization” of Torah that fills the vacuum. To address these and other unique dangers of the Internet, we need an approach that can be effective in today’s environment.
While filters and other software are enormously important and helpful in confronting some of technology’s threats, we must remain collectively aware of the many perils that can be filtered and controlled only by the individual, with no assistance from technology. Whether as educators, parents or simply on our own behalf, we must remain vigilant and mindful of technology’s impact on our lives and we must learn how to employ it judiciously, discriminately and carefully. Furthermore, we have the opportunity to add wisdom to “smartness”—to educate our children and students how to be thoughtful in managing and filtering their own ever-growing use of smart technology.
Statistics confirm the clinical experience of mental health professionals in both the secular and frum world: marriages are falling apart, workers are being fired and relationships are suffering because of technology-driven hyper-sexuality. In the past ten years alone, a dramatic spike in the sheer number of individuals who are struggling with their online sexual behavior has been observed across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, socio-economic class, and employment type, with the age of onset getting younger. Solutions must be founded on inculcating a sense of individual responsibility to regulate oneself, and providing the tools by which such self-regulation can be become normative.
Communal dialogue has long focused on the graphic and disturbing nature of much of the content of the Internet. While these concerns are well taken, a broader spectrum of review is necessary, with particular attention to technology’s daily impact on children. As writer Allison Slater Tate identifies in her 2014 Washington Post article, “We are the first generation of parents in the age of iEverything,” we “had the last of the truly low-tech childhoods, and now are among the first of the truly high-tech parents,” and it is our obligation to learn how to be parents of this new generation. The emerging term for healthy and responsible use of technology in the literature and in the field of technology education is “digital citizenship.” Digital citizenship is more than Internet safety. It recognizes our role as citizens of the digital realm and how our behaviors and interactions can have a positive and negative effect on others as well as on ourselves.
The future religious stability and growth of our community is dependent upon our acknowledging the inevitable role technology will continue to play in our lives and exploring how to both protect against its dangers and fully utilize its benefits. A denial of reality will only lead to misguided responses, outdated strategies and squandered opportunities, as we continue to fight yesterday’s battles without addressing today’s urgent needs. The power of technology is not in gizmos and gadgets, but in the fundamental restructuring of social patterns and the opportunities it provides for us to serve our community in vastly more effective ways. It is only through an increased focus on our deepest, most authentic Torah values and commitments that we can effectively navigate the overwhelming challenges and opportunities before us.
Technology’s impact on child development is profound and complex. Major policy bodies and developmentalists have warned of possible detrimental effects of technology on the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development of children. In particular, attention, memory and executive function underlie the ability to learn and are all affected by a child’s engagement with technology, as are such functions as impulse control, decision making and systematic problem solving among others. While the literature may not be as robust as one would expect or desire, and while we honestly do not yet have clear and definitive answers as to the full effect technology and media has on development and cognition, there is still much for us to learn from the existing literature and we must be committed to keeping abreast of new emerging research.
The Internet has already brought several paradigm shifts to the Torah world, most notably in the areas of authority and truth. The paradigm shift in the dynamic of authority stems primarily from the community’s democratization, which itself is an outgrowth of our becoming a “connected” community. Every Jew has always had an opinion; the Internet has now given every Jew a voice. In regards to truth, as Google puts more questions, more challenges and more skepticism in the hands of the curious than anything ever did before, our community remains slow to respond. We will need to exercise ever-greater vigilance in ensuring that those presenting the Torah hashkafa are equipped with best material that our Torah community can offer.
Cyber bullying is currently understood as not specific to a particular technology, but rather any bullying that takes place using electronic technology. This can include sending mean text messages or emails, spreading rumors by email or on social networking sites and posting or disseminating embarrassing pictures, videos, websites or imposing fabricated profiles. While no statistics on these phenomena exist regarding the Jewish community, practical factors may well cause the devastating impact of cyber bullying to be equal to, or greater, in the Orthodox community. Parents and community leadership need to up their game and increase their familiarity with the cyber world in order to properly supervise what goes on there.
The unavoidable and increasingly pervasive and powerful impact of technology implores us to confront the unprecedented opportunities and avenues it can facilitate for Jewish growth, education and learning, despite the many imposing challenges it presents. Many online platforms deliver rich and profound media but at the same time may also inadvertently serve as the conduit for severely inappropriate material. Though online Torah learning is just beginning to become normative and will likely continue to flourish, there is a need to be proactive in identifying a safe and effective means of employing the extraordinary tools available for online education. Additionally, with the tuition crisis only growing, we cannot simply ignore the emerging opportunities to alleviate it in significant ways.
The unprecedented proliferation of technological advancements, marked by an ability to access and manipulate content in unprecedented ways, compels a measure of reflection regarding the use of new technologies in educating our children. Educational uses for technology include conveying the content being taught, enhancing student learning, serving as an assessment vehicle and serving as an organizational tool. To help mitigate the risks and costs involved in bringing technology into the classroom, two principles must be respected: First, if construed by individuals or institutions as being anything but a tool, technology will prove to be either useless or harmful. Second, a child’s education is profoundly enhanced by the existence of a partnership between home and school.
Recent studies have shown that moments of downtime and the “mind wandering” that generally takes place then are essential for our mental health, giving us a much-needed opportunity to reflect and plan. Filling all that time up with other tasks, as is commonly done when one has a smartphone in one’s pocket, can rob us of what the research calls “Autobiographical Planning,” the time we take orient ourselves to what’s important and maintain a comfortable equilibrium. Losing the availability of the downtime in our day can actually undermine our ability to know ourselves, digest ideas and experiences, and process the significance (or insignificance) of everyday events.