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Screen It

Can we reboot our tech habits?


It’s interesting to remember where we were before Waze... blundering around town, that’s where. Rather than nonchalantly dismissing modern communication and technology, let’s appreciate fewer visits to the bank, medical advances, and the fact that I don’t have to hand-deliver this article to my editors, for starters.

But appreciating the advantages shouldn’t prevent us from honestly facing the very real issues. The possible angles are as endless as the web; here are some dilemmas readers shared


Best Babysitter Ever
I feel like the screen conversation has gotten hijacked by the focus on inappropriate content. We have a strong filter, so inappropriate content isn’t a danger. But that doesn’t mean everything is okay. It’s important for me to get across to my kids that I find the entire digital world to be a slippery slope.


Typical scene: Frum Mom waits in line as Tot starts to make experimental unhappy sounds. Mom quickly sets up some Bob the Builder distraction and — soooo cute — at 15 months he knows how to set the whole thing on replay.

What’s wrong with this picture?

So many things.

When a kid kvetches, Mom can talk to him, rock him, or hold him if needed. By accustoming him to being soothed by Bob, you lose that bonding, and risk developing an appetite for digital comfort food. Then you ponder why, at age 30, he turns to his phone when he’s stressed. We learn to work through frustration by dealing with it, not by numbing it. If you never allow him to exercise that emotional muscle, don’t wonder at his short fuse when he’s older.

Next, you’re inhibiting his natural curiosity by replacing the store full of real people with Wendy and Fireman Sam. That prevents him from observing and experiencing typical everyday behavior, which is needed to learn about the world.

Finally, we’ve all heard about the explosion of focus issues in students. Yes, he’s a bit bored. Well, the skill of engaging oneself is built in places like the line in the mall.

As an aside, you may have noticed that napping isn’t going well. That blue light isn’t helping.

All true, and well known. As Jews, though, we have additional concerns.

See, we want this little boychik to be a talmid chacham one day.

He needs as good an attention span as he can get, an imagination that works independently, and a mind trained to handle sophisticated and detailed material, even with no background effects or pictures in his Gemara. We owe it to the Jewish People not to stunt our kids.

Let’s aim to get the kids unplugged and off the den couch, out into the air and sunshine that will help them thrive. And if we’re outside with them, it might do us some good, too.


Let Me Chill, Okay?
Yes, I’m attached to my phone. After a long day with five adorable, demanding little kids, I just want to zone out. I’ll spend an hour surfing the web, checking out social media accounts, maybe watching a YouTube clip. Other people chill with a book or shoot the breeze with a friend. This is what does it for me. Anything wrong with that?


The real Jewish question here and with all gray areas, isn’t, “Anything wrong with that?” but “Anything right with that?” There might be.

If this is taking you where you’re supposed to get to in life, that’s fine — there are always exceptions. But as a rule, I’m a bit dubious about mindless swiping building character. Conversely, it’s unusual that reading books or schmoozing with friends make you less patient, depressed, or chronically distracted. The same technology downsides we fear for our kids plague adults too.

Note that many of you who sat through seven hours straight of seminary classes now get antsy when a clip runs longer than two minutes or when your laptop takes a few extra seconds to boot up.

Now provide a convincing argument that (choose one or more of the following options):

  1. a) this shortened fuse doesn’t spill over on the husband and kids;
  2. b) jumping from site to site doesn’t trigger an impulse at simchahs to click an imaginary X next to the speaker’s head;
  3. c) the posts don’t give you a vague or not so vague sense of dissatisfaction.

We’re very good at championing family values — in theory. A number of teens expressed frustration that parents are great at telling others to set limits, but oblivious to their own phone and gadget overuse.


My Frustrating Rerun
The only thing consistent about my Elul plans to stop wasting time on the Internet was that I flopped daily. It was pretty neutral stuff, although obviously not always. I’d be up late, flicking through I-don’t-know-how-many sites, finding answers to inane questions, sharing dumb clips that aren’t funny in the morning. I’d wake up with the worst feeling about myself. I feel ridiculous crying into my siddur over the same thing again and again. What doable steps can I take?


The baalei mussar famously advocate making small commitments. Your all or nothing approach is landing you flat on your face.

Perhaps start with a time limit by utilizing the parental controls to cap the hours online. Or have a list of more “innocuous” sites and cut the ones that are making you uncomfortable.

You can go for the tried and true, like splitting the computer code with a friend, starting a support group, only using devices in public areas like the living room, and getting WebChaver in addition to whatever filter you have, to help you stick to your commitments.

Turning to Hashem with your struggle is wonderful. Sometimes, as people get caught in assorted levels of screen misuse, their connection to davening wanes as their repeated attempts to stop fail. I’m so relieved that you didn’t fall into that trap because your siddur is your life support.

We say in Shacharis, “May it be Your will… that You not bring us to transgression... nor challenge or shame... and that the yetzer hara not overcome us... that we are attached to the yetzer hatov... and force our will to be subservient to You.”

Tefillah is basic to spiritual success because we can’t face our challenges without His help.

“A person…[will successfully overcome a challenge] through Hashem... because with each struggle, the yetzer hara gets stronger and a person weaker... One has to pray that Hashem remove it. Then, [success will come, as] the person [continues to] fight... and stands strong with all his might, although he should never think that he can do it himself, acknowledging how very hard this is... and [remembering that the ability to] get rid of the challenge comes from Hashem.” (Nesivos Olam, Nesivos Koach Hayetzer)

Getting Hit Over The Head
After being laid off, I fell back into a really nasty viewing habit that I’d had as a teenager and thought I had kicked. My therapist says this is an addiction and that I have to view myself as ill. No matter how many times this is explained to my wife, she still blames me for the difficulty this is causing our relationship.


People beat addiction all the time. Sometimes it’s permanent, more commonly it’s a lifelong up-and-down struggle. You’ve overcome this before, and that’s a good sign that if you’re motivated, and get the right help, you can do it again.

It’s commonly touted that addiction is an illness when that’s far from fully accepted by the science and medical establishment. If it is, it’s more like diabetes, where much can be done to prevent it, treat it, and limit its damage. It’s not a gunshot wound to the brain — “Oh, well, I guess I’m a goner.”

You want your wife to accept that this outside force leaves you no recourse. However, that’s hard to back up. We see a theoretical example of someone truly losing control from the ben sorer u’moreh. His insatiable desire for wine and meat leads him to deplete his parents and others of their money to get his fix, and he’s given capital punishment based on his inevitable path to self-destruction. Yet this scenario, we’re told, never happened and never will.

Most addicts have their limits. When someone says they “can’t help it,” that can have a whole range of meanings. Someone with a serious alchohol addiction may have people he won’t steal from, and an inappropriate-viewing addict wouldn’t do so when his rosh yeshivah is in the room. We all know heavy smokers who would never light up on Shabbos and even abstain for a three-day Yom Tov.

You say “not my fault,” and your wife needs to understand. Does that mean you plan on sticking to this behavior for the rest of your life? I have a hard time believing that. I bet you imagine a brighter future for your own sake and for that of your wife and children.

I asked eminent Lakewood therapist and addictions expert, Reb Shimon Frankel LCSW (full disclosure, my brother), to review this answer and weigh in. Here’s his take:

“If your wife was addicted to smacking you over the head with a sledgehammer, would you feel that’s okay because she doesn’t mean any harm? No! You would make sure something is done to nip this sledging-her-husband addiction in the bud, or else you would contemplate severe measures.

“Your addiction is doing just that. Research shows that when a wife learns of her husband’s actions, the trauma to the brain is similar to other types of severe abuse.

“There can be healing when you commit to abstaining completely, do whatever it takes to prevent relapses, and work on strengthening their marriage, even though the actual brain trauma will never completely disappear.

“Therapy should help you understand how this developed and then map a plan to avoid relapse. Chances are high that you need a 12-step program in addition to that. It’s also vital that you see a highly trained professional marriage counselor.”

And for the rest of us, I’m reminded of a six-year-old who told his mother, “In Bubby’s computer, we put in any word we want and lots of pictures and movies pop up (embarrassed giggle), let’s get that kind.”

It’s great when you have protection in place, but we owe it to our kids to stay on top of our game. The percentage of wholesome kids with super-duper filters at home who claim that their folks would faint if they knew what they’ve been exposed to — and often caught up in more seriously — is very high.

Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 4:5) enumerates five transgressions that need extra caution because once you let these in, they’re particularly difficult to shake. They are: seeing immodest sights, negative social influences, gossip and slander (think news junkies and social media craving), and anger. It’s reasonable to say that these behaviors have an addictive pull. Rambam emphasizes that no wrong behavior is truly hardwired and anyone can change, yet the most practical way to break an awful nasty habit is to not start it to begin with.


Lots of Types and Stripes
My son received a smartwatch as a prize from a well-known tzedakah institution. It’s got WiFi, a spot for a sim card, games, and can download apps. I’m uncomfortable with an eight-year-old having that, and his yeshivah doesn’t allow it either. I’m disillusioned that a well-respected organization is distributing something mechanchim see as unsuitable.


It’s normal that parents encounter gadgets that are inconsistent with their core values and keep them out. There are also options for disconnecting WiFi or setting codes to prevent access. This is only to be expected.

Your son will catch on quickly that plenty of people, fine in many areas, are less religiously sensitive in others. Bring up the discussion of various standards, retaining your own, and having ahavas Yisrael when we’re at different spots on a path, and he’ll have a parent compatible program in his brain to process this.

Kids can potentially access anything if they want to, so try and draw them to home base as much as possible: invest in making your house the greatest place to hang out. Smart communication can keep them on your side, whatever your specific chinuch approach.

I asked a ten-year-old neighbor whose family has very limited Internet access to explain her family’s approach. She said: “Computers are really easy to get used to and really hard to stop. It can make your thinking weaker and your head less sharp and no one wants their brain to turn into jelly.” Rather than feel disadvantaged, her parents have her proudly on board.

As for the smartwatch, this will cost you money. Trade it with Junior for an even better prize. Dave Ramsey should forgive me, but we pay for principles.


Our sister-in-law doesn’t WhatsApp, and is never in the loop about gifts, menu planning or whatever. I respect her, but it’s getting annoying — constantly updating her by emails is a waste of time I can’t afford. Why do I have to exert myself for her self-imposed morality?


"Self-imposed morality”: Nice. Loads of technologically cautious citizens won’t use WhatsApp socially, with enthusiastic rabbinic encouragement.

It can’t be easy for your sister-in-law to stick to her convictions, being the only one without WhatsApp and all. Having said that, you don’t have to accommodate her. Perhaps another family member will want to keep her up to date. If not, then like families in which one person eats a more stringent hechsher, or who won’t go to certain Pesach hotels, or won’t attend a simchah that doesn’t adhere to a higher caliber of tzniyus, she has the bad luck of being in a family with different standards than she has.

Your consideration until this point is noteworthy. It takes a bona fide tolerant and open-minded individual to go out of their way for someone else’s virtue. It also brings with it great spiritual dividends, because respecting standards beyond your own is a tried-and- true method for netting great personal growth for ourselves and our children.


What Planet Are You On?
I watch more movies and TV series than I’d like to, but honestly, mostly pareve shows, oldies, or the Jewish themed serials that have become popular recently. Is this an objective problem?


From the cradle, it’s the interactions of the people around us that teach us how to live in a healthy and authentic way. Let’s examine what happens when, thanks to Netflix, Disney, and HBO, one observes more nonexistent people than existing ones — and even the real people we see are shaped by years of watching.

Ends up that we’re often playing out a pretend script rather than truly living. Similar to auto responses on your email, conflict resolution, friendship, and even DMCs have taken a turn for the mechanical. I say X, knowing he’ll say Y, and I’ll respond Z. And when it veers, it’s all considered socially off, or as one girl opined when meeting an original style bochur with exemplary character, “I think there’s something wrong with his middos and maybe he needs therapy.” Read: “I felt off-balance when he didn’t follow the exact dating lines for gentlemen sweeping damsels off their feet.”

Note the rise in contrived and overly dramatic behavior (think exaggerated facial expressions, sweeping entrances, easily triggered shriek responses), expectations of fast, simplistic resolution of difficulties (that’s what script writers are paid for, after all) and a visceral need for quick, intense connections (episodes are only so long).

Worst of all, we’re losing our ability to engage in that delicate art form called Real Life.

Young couples think they know what marriage looks like, because they’ve watched hundreds of simulated phony examples. When you say “This is so not normal,” consider the possibility that your picture of dating, marriage, friendship and child-rearing are skewed by a subconscious saturated with movies, serials, and sitcoms. An emotional feeling of clashing contradictory realities called cognitive dissonance is caused when the actual doesn’t look and feel how you expect it to. Sometimes there’s a problem with reality, but sometimes the problem is with false expectations of reality. Either way, it causes emotional stress and even crises.

This might help explain why maladjustment and drama in shanah rishonah and disappointment at all stages of marriage are ultra-trending out there.

Here’s a strange phenomenon: Lots of people tell me that they often feel like an actor on stage. They don’t feel themselves from the inside out, rather they see life from outside of themselves, an aerial view, like watching a show. When you think about coming home from vacation, or starting a new job, or marrying off a child, do you imagine looking through your own eyes, or are you seeing yourself as though from the wings of a stage? If it’s the latter — and you’d be in good company — then this is likely causing superficiality and externality. You’re missing out on experiencing life in a deep, genuine way.

Finally, when we mimic false lives, it’s usually non-Jewish ones. Even on the off chance that there’s no heresy, immorality, or violence in the plot, cultural assimilation, iffy social attitudes, and out-there norms certainly are given a cozy subliminal seat in our psyche when we settle in for some viewing pleasure.


Mrs. Batya Weinberg has been involved in numerous aspects of Jewish education for over 30 years. She’s a senior lecturer in many seminaries and a noted student advisor.


Have questions about this topic? Another hashkafic issue you’ve always wondered about? A dilemma for which you’re seeking the Torah approach? Let’s touch base. Send your question to familyfirst@mishpacha.com.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 764)

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