| Screen Safer |

Chapter 8: In Control 

  “I want to help you, Mendy,” I said. “But this isn’t the best place for this conversation”

By Yossie Strickman, as told to Bayla Hersher

“You don’t look like you’re from around here,” the cashier said, studying me as I paid for my coffee.

I was in a supermarket in Williamsburg, and its typical clientele had curlier peyos. In fact, at the moment, the cashier — whose nametag read “Mendy” — and I were the only men in the store without frocks.

“I’m from Passaic,” I replied with a grin, “but I’m in the neighborhood for a meeting.”

“What do you do?” he asked conversationally as he took my credit card.

I wasn’t in a rush, so I told him a bit about Project TRUST.

“I work with people, mainly teenage boys, who are struggling with their technology use. I help them get healthy and become functioning members of society,” I explained.

The cashier’s jaw dropped. Without a word, he scrambled around the checkout counter and enveloped me in a massive bear hug. I froze for a moment, but then I returned the gesture; in my line of work, you learn to expect the unexpected. When he finally let go of me, his eyes were moist.

“I’ve been looking for someone like you,” he said.

Glancing around to make sure no one would overhear, Mendy told me he needed help. Badly.

“I’m addicted to the internet,” he said in a low voice as he returned to his post behind the checkout counter. “When I’m home, I can’t pull myself away from my phone, my computer, anything. My wife is so fed up, she’s threatening to leave me. I don’t want to lose my marriage, but I can’t seem to fight this.”

“I want to help you, Mendy,” I said. “But this isn’t the best place for this conversation.”

I gestured to the customer in line behind me and the others milling around within earshot before handing him my business card.

“Let’s talk.”

A few weeks went by, but I didn’t hear from him. Then one day, I walked out of a meeting to see a missed call and a voicemail on my phone.

“Hi, Yossie, it’s Mendy Schick — I’m ready to talk.”

Later that week, I walked up the steps to the Schicks’ home in Brooklyn. I raised my arm to knock, but Mendy opened the door before I made contact. With a broad smile on his face, he pulled me into another bear hug.

Mendy’s a hugger, apparently, I thought, hugging him back.

And then Mendy and his wife Sarah sat with me at their kitchen table, and we talked.

Sarah talked about how isolated she felt when her husband was too preoccupied with texting, gaming, or mindlessly surfing the internet to spend time with her and their four children. She talked about how she often felt like she and her needs were being ignored, and she talked about how she resented the fact that Mendy was never present when he was with their family. Sarah talked about how worried she was that Mendy’s attachment to his phone was affecting their children.

I sat and listened; Sarah had expressed how important it was to her that I understand her concerns before I started working with Mendy. I’m not a marriage therapist, so I didn’t offer any advice — I just listened. It was only after Mendy began to speak about how frustrated he was by his inability to tear himself away from his screen that I jumped into the conversation.

“This is about you functioning better,” I started, “as a husband, a father, and a member of society in general. Healthy, productive people control their technology, not the other way around. Once you regain control of technology, you’re going to see improvements in every area of your life.”

Mendy nodded — that’s why he’d called me, he explained. Other people he’d spoken to about his internet addiction made it a religious issue, but that alone didn’t motivate him to get help.

“I know my avodas Hashem is suffering,” Mendy said, “but so am I. So are my wife and kids. No one I spoke to understood that I needed to get help because I was struggling in my marriage and at work, not just because a ben Torah shouldn’t be spending so many hours glued to a screen.”

Once the Schicks felt comfortable with me and my process, I asked Sarah to step out so Mendy and I could work on filtering his device alone. I wanted him to make decisions about his filter without external pressure to take on more than he could handle.

While I created Mendy’s filter account, I spoke to him about seeing a therapist who specializes in helping people with technology addictions.

“Getting a filter is only part of the battle,” I explained; we wanted changes to be permanent, and that meant Mendy needed to do a lot of inner work. Work I couldn’t do for him.

“What I always do for my clients, though, is make sure their phones are working as well as possible. And right now,” I said, scrolling quickly through half-a-dozen pages of apps, “your phone is slow, has no storage or battery life, and probably crashes all the time.”

“Ok, but I need these apps, Yossie,” Mendy said, hands fidgeting like he wanted to take the phone from me.

“You need Gett [an Israeli taxi service]? You live in Brooklyn!”

“I’ll go back to Israel eventually,” he protested.

“So you’ll download it again when you need it. It’ll take two minutes.”

Mendy couldn’t explain why he needed Gett, Pokémon Go, or Duolingo, only that deleting them didn’t feel like an option. We discussed Mendy’s emotional attachment to apps he’d never opened until he felt ready to delete one — just one — app.

And then another.

I didn’t want to push, but Mendy decided to go through every one of his apps and delete the ones that were only taking up space — on the phone and in his head.

We got rid of games he didn’t play, news he didn’t listen to, and shopping apps he’d never used. Not only would that optimize his phone’s overall performance, but the chokehold Mendy was in would be loosened with every app he let go.

By the time I left, Mendy had two and a half pages of apps — an enormous accomplishment — and an appointment with a psychologist I recommend often. Most importantly, Mendy had the confidence that his situation would finally improve.

Over the next two months, Mendy sent periodic updates about his progress:

I don’t use my phone before Shacharis anymore.

My phone is on airplane mode when I’m learning now, and I can finally concentrate on more than one line at a time.

I’ve been leaving my phone outside my room at night, and I’m getting two or three more hours of sleep every night!!!

Three months later, I met Mendy during his lunch break for a follow-up. I was impressed by his determination to take control of his addiction and complimented him on how he was beating it one step at a time.

“I felt like your equal this whole time,” Mendy said, gesturing to me as he explained what had made his transformation possible. “You were there to answer my questions, guide me through tough situations, and support me when it got hard — as a friend.”

He paused, collecting his thoughts.

“You made me feel like a partner, so I took responsibility like a partner. And now I’m ready to take the lead.”


Yossie Strickman is the founder of Project TRUST, an initiative that offers comprehensive support to those navigating the dangers of technology, including exposure to improper content, unhealthy internet habits, and cyberbullying. He is based in Passaic, New Jersey, and speaks about safe technology use across the United States.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1007)

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