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Screen It: the Conversation Continues 

Here’s to playing the game right and accessing technology only for the good. Part two of our technology discussion


Won’t it be great when the whole world goes digital and we can devote all our time to the important work that we’re here for? I mentioned that to a friend who said, “I hope at that point, we’ll still know what that is. Here’s to playing the game right and accessing technology only for the good. Below, part two of our technology discussion.


Fuzzy Lines
My daughter has a rare, newly discovered chronic medical disorder. Most doctors don’t know enough about the disorder to help me. Each time I have a question about her condition, I wonder if this is a reason to get Facebook — there I’d be able to get support and knowledge from other parents who know more than our doctors. Also, reading about other kids with her condition is so validating and makes me feel less alone. What should I do?

This question highlights the constantly evolving and complex nature of many cyberworld challenges. Sometimes, as in this instance, there’s a medical circumstance with specific demands.

There are business networking opportunities or marketing particulars. What if your business or field demands access that isn’t compatible with your filter? Graphics would be a good example of such a situation.

What about the musical 17-year-old who’s a talented recorder with a future in the field? Should she have a phone just for recording, with the apps she needs, if this isn’t the norm of her family and community?

Whatever your personal way of dealing with the dilemma, we all understand the strong reservations regarding social media. Compromising a family’s standard is serious business. The first step is to consult daas Torah, and only afterwards to schmooze it out with amateur advice dispensers or a magazine deiah zugger.

Sometimes you’ll be told that there’s place for latitude, but that it must be structured. You don’t want to slide into a carte blanche attitude toward standards you value. For example, Facebook, but only on one specific iPad, with time controls, and at an Internet café or your mother’s house.

When it comes to asking sh’eilos, here’s guidance received from Rav Dovid Feinstein ztz”l. Since I live in Yerushalayim, Rav Dovid would never answer my queries when they reflected an American-Israeli situation, but rather sent me to ask a talmid chacham in Israel who was on home turf. Cases regarding tech use are nuanced, with approaches that change from community to community and certainly from continent to continent. Whether you’re chassidish or litvishe, European or Russian, FFB or baal teshuvah, consulting with someone who understands your mindset and current reality is crucial.


Engaging or Stunting?
As a science teacher, I find computer use positive. Instead of using dated, expensive textbooks, my students have a wealth of current information at their fingertips. They’re able to easily research and access information about so many topics, in a variety of engaging formats, including photos and videos. Of course, I understand the need for filters, but I think that in 2021 the need for Internet fluency is vital. Similarly, the more technology I use in the classroom — smartboards, instructional clips, and short films — the more engaged and less bored my students are.

The world moves quickly. Educators have to stay relevant and if a teacher is unchanged from twenty years ago, or even five, it’s time to revamp technique and curricula.

But be wary of overkill. While it’s true that kids have an easier time paying attention when watching screens, are you fulfilling students’ needs or creating new ones? Crunch time is when the screen is gone and their brains lose that prop-up. I bet your students love your classes, but future teachers might not provide that level of entertainment, leaving the kids bored and distracted.

Did someone say entertainment? You may see that among younger adults, fast-paced, exciting minyanim, with breaks during a long tefillah, are what’s in. One wonders how much focused, introspective davening this generates. Parallel the smorgasbord shul trend (“What does that mean, which shul do I go to?”) with the unlimited options for jumping around sites, tasting from here and there.

As for processing facts, it’s true that there’s a growing trend toward quick, broad learning. However, becoming a talmid chacham is more about depth than breadth, wisdom rather than information. As kids find it harder to stay in one spot analyzing, their ability to understand profoundly — knowing “how to learn” and “being mechadesh” will be compromised.

Computers give entry to a wide range of data, yet as a teacher you may have encountered decreasing emotional depth. It’s been said that the danger isn’t that computers will think like humans, but that humans will think like computers. The bilateral nature of technology causes us to see the world in a two-dimensional surface way. The practical result is measurably less natural empathy, noted in countless social studies over the last twenty years.

There are advantages to harnessing screen use for students, but the price for Torah, avodah, and gemilus chasadim calls for circumspection and moderation.


Time for an Update
My house has more gadgets than I can count, more messaging than talking — you know you’re in trouble when even the teenagers admit it’s out of hand. The problem is how to make lasting change. We’ve tried digital detox in many forms, but we’re really dependent on our devices and keep backsliding. I’d love input.

We celebrate Rosh Chodesh when the moon is at its smallest. That’s because she’s changed course and is heading up. More important than where you are is where you’re headed — and you’re aiming in a great direction despite glitches and reverses.

You’re lucky. Your family sounds on deck, and that makes success more likely. Everyone is different, but here are some general ideas that might be helpful:

Get rid of stuff. If you use something to build a toilet, you’ll probably never use it again. But if a person has dishonest weights, they can’t even be used to build a latrine — they must be disposed of (Chinuch 602). Items that aid and abet shouldn’t be in a Jewish home, even if you’re sure you’ll never misuse them. Remember that 2014 unfiltered smartphone with the broken screen in the back of the drawer? Toss it or TAG it. Then take inventory of all your gadgets and cut down.

Beware one-timers. Can’t handle the thought of cooking a whole Shabbos? Start with one dish. Don’t want to learn? Just give it a few minutes. Can’t handle this relationship? Just today.

Unfortunately, the yetzer hara plays this game too. You don’t watch that stuff? Just this once. Off social media? Just five minutes. You don’t post? Just this picture. The Gra compares giving in to drinking salty water (Iggeres HaGra). You think you’re quenching your thirst, but it’s wishful drinking.

Get up seven times. Yes, I just said to avoid one-time mess-ups at all costs. That works sometimes. But mistakes are bound to happen, and then it’s about wading past setbacks. A misstep is getting caught in a spider thread: sticky, but fairly easy to shake off. Repeat offenses, though, wrap you tightly in layers of those spider threads, and leave you stuck in the web (Succah 42a). So whatever happened last night, get right back on track today.

Don’t let FOMO fool you. Notifications and pop-ups, the pull of checking statuses — perhaps the biggest draw into cyberspace is the feeling that you’re missing out on something. There’s a reason it’s called virtual reality: it’s not authentic. A little less distraction won’t be dangerous and you might find yourself actually enjoying it.

Hatzlachah to you and your family!


Your Umbrella Is Getting Everyone Wet
You opened up the topic of nasty Internet addictions. I think it should be expanded to include a community discussion on video game addiction, online shopping addiction, and texting, surfing, and scrolling addiction. 

Ah, addiction. High on the list of words overused and watered down to the point of impotence. Ditto “abuse,” “dysfunctional,” “ADHD,” and “stigma.”

The wide addiction net cast has produced a confusion of principles, illustrated in your question where you bracket serious Torah violations with compulsive texting. It’s like lumping attachments to narcotics, carbs, and shopping in one pile because the basal ganglia deep in your brain releases similar chemicals when you imbibe in any of them. This will muddle values.

It’s not good when someone can’t stop scrolling — and very worrisome if they’re driving at the time. There’s no comparing that with the relationship repair and spiritual reboot often needed after weaning off social media, as an example. And the real dirt is a different category as well.

I’ve heard it said, “Yes, I watch things I shouldn’t but I can stop at any time,” as if the addiction were the trouble rather than undermining the sanctity of a Jewish home. It doesn’t matter if one can or can’t stop — only if one does stop. What makes this problematic is that it’s wrong, not that it’s addictive. By making addiction the main issue, lesser (if still difficult) dependencies are given equal weight to real transgressions.

Repeated actions rewire our brains and release dopamine, the pleasure chemical, forming habit. That’s one of the ways that all sorts of activities — cleaning your house, exercising, studying Chinese — become firmly established, sometimes overly so. The more pleasurable or satisfying, the more dopamine released, and the more deeply it digs in. (Between all this conditioning is a narrow, constantly moving swath of free choice territory where our instinct and intellect fight it out.)

It’s alarming when strong habits, insidious or benign, encroach on the rest of life. There’s much debate though, if behaviors can even be called addictions. The DSM-5, the official diagnostic guide published by the American Psychiatric Association, calls pathological gambling — online and off — and Internet gaming, “disorders.” It offers no clinical diagnosis for technology dependency, including the bad sort. But so, what? Whether you call it habit, dependency, or addiction, it doesn’t change the importance of alleviating the mess. And there are similar tools and techniques to help all these behaviors.

I was inspired to go off coffee for a few months after watching a dear student battle valiantly with a very difficult and dangerous compulsion. I wanted to understand at least a tiny part of her struggle and prove to myself that I’m stronger than a ceramic mug.

What stopped the experiment? As the school year accelerated, my schedule collided with my idealism, and I remembered all the reasons I was drinking the stuff to begin with.

We may all have our habits, often for good reason, but we should also feel uncomfortable if we find ourselves in the grip of anything that might compromise our healthy free choice.


Therapy Shmerapy
When it comes to negative viewing problems, we’re constantly told to go to therapy and 12-Step groups. Where is mention of learning and mussar for building yiras Shamayim? There are so many excellent English seforim and learning hotlines with thousands of options for mussar, halachah, and anything else you’d need for inspiration. Pushing therapy every time there are Internet issues ignores the fact that this topic is very sensitive and so much psychology contradicts Jewish values.

Wherever there’s water, there’s growth, and wherever there’s Torah study there will be too.

Most obviously, learning overcomes ignorance.

The mitzvah to guard against seeing anything that pulls us in the direction of immorality (mitzvah 387) is one of the six constant mitzvahs; we’re all charged to be on the lookout 24/7. Many other mitzvahs fall under this general category, and one can only keep them if one learns them.

In addition, “When one studies Torah, love of G-d will definitely settle in his heart” (Chinuch 418). Learning tightens the bonds and sharpens the awareness of our Creator that we need to thrive.

Finally, Torah is a metaphysical cure against spiritual obstacles.

The word “samtem” in Shema, telling us to “put” Torah on our hearts, can be read, “sam tam”— a perfect medicine (Kiddushin 30b). “I created an evil inclination,” says Hashem, “and I created Torah as its antidote. If you toil in it, you won’t fall into the yetzer hara’s hands... If that lowly thing attacks you, drag him to the beis medrash” (ibid).

Sometimes, it’s spiritual obstacles that prevent one from getting clinical help when appropriate. If pride, fear, lack of information, or self-dishonesty stands in someone’s way, a mussar sefer, good shmuess, or powerful shiur can help get them in the door.

Danger to mental or physical health warrants Shabbos desecration. We pray equally for “healing to the body and healing to the spirit.” We’re required to see a licensed competent doctor when physically sick, and are liable if we don’t, and the importance of seeing a properly qualified mental health professional when the trouble is emotional follows.

Resistance to getting help is an old story. The Rambam tells us: “How does one heal ailments of the spirit? Go to wise people who know how to cure the spirit with their knowledge and instruction until brought to a good path. When you know that you have these adverse tendencies and nevertheless don’t go to wise people to be cured by them, Shlomo Hamelech says about you (Mishlei 9), ‘Fools despise wisdom and direction’ ” (Rambam, Dei’os 2:2).

Many ruchniyus crises, such as Internet misuse, may have pathological underpinnings. Trying to differentiate between plain old capitulation to the yetzer hara and emotional disturbance or instability is a tough call, especially because it’s often a combination.

Modern medical research is a heaven-sent gift. Benefitting from psychiatric medication and a skilled therapeutic toolbox leaves a person more capable of confronting their moral contest, which, no worries, is always still there waiting for attention.

As for psychology’s complicated relationship with Judaism, “If the nations show wisdom, believe it. Values, don’t believe” (Eichah Rabbah 2:13). Much of what one can encounter clashes with Torah — and much doesn’t. For example, saying that all feelings are telling you something, or should be processed, is fine, whereas saying that all feelings are okay is not.

The famous 12-Step “Serenity Prayer” is abridged from a longer invocation by evangelical theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1930s. The original evokes non-Jewish icons of worship and was popular in church groups when adopted by AA. Before hanging even the amended version on your fridge, consult a rabbi with expertise in contemporary avodah zarah issues.

Let’s differentiate without throwing out that poor baby with the bathwater. Hashkafic and halachic questions show up regularly in therapy, and both practitioners and patrons need a posek high on their contact list. But therapy is a chochmah that can offer tools and skills that you can and should avail yourself of.

There are times that mussar seforim alone will help you overcome whatever negative force has a grip on you, but it can be tragic when someone doesn’t face the need for an additional approach when necessary. If you continue to struggle, don’t hesitate to call Amudim for a referral.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 773)

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