I researched until I felt like I had an accurate grasp of the studies and concerns. And I came to the conclusion that tackling this topic directly is important — and impossible.
In April 2016, I was asked to formulate an honest, practical program to tackle the issues of technology for teens. I had previously developed programs on various other topics for high school girls. This, however, was the first time I was not interested in the job.
It’s not that I was blind to the dangers of technology, or that I didn’t struggle with technology’s trade-offs in my own life. I’d just never given it too much real thought — and I didn’t want to. I’d heard about the asifos, I’d attended the mandatory Internet-awareness events at my children’s school. I thought my technology usage was the same as anyone else’s, and I was pretty comfortable with the status quo. Developing a technology-awareness curriculum would force me to confront that status quo. I didn’t like that idea.
I could not, however, just give a flat-out no. I went home, pulled out a piece of paper, and began writing:
How I use technology in my daily life:
- I text a lot. Maybe too much, especially around my kids.
- I listen to a lot of shiurim on the Torah Anytime app.
- I’ve definitely seen and heard many things that I shouldn’t have (though not on the Torah Anytime app).
- Waze has saved me too many times to count.
- I purchase way too much because the Amazon app makes it so easy.
- I don’t have any accounts on social media, but I do occasionally go on to see public accounts of party planners, photographers, and lifestyle designers.
- Okay, probably more often than occasionally.
- My calendar, to-do lists, and contacts are all kept in my phone. It’s my external brain.
- I will occasionally put my youngest in front of an Uncle Moishy DVD to give myself half an hour of peace.
- Okay, more than occasionally.
As I read over my list, I made my decision. I was not ready to have this conversation, much less lead it. I was going to say no.
Somehow, that no turned into an “I’ll think about it,” and then a reluctant yes. I spent the following summer researching everything related to technology and its effects on our lives, brains, and relationships. I pored through books and articles, both secular and religious. I listened to speeches calling for moderation and those calling for an extreme approach. I researched until I felt like I had an accurate grasp of the studies and concerns. And I came to the conclusion that tackling this topic directly is important — and impossible.
You see, the problem with addressing technology is that every couple of months, the landscape changes completely. Apps appear and get updated and outdated almost daily. Our cars, houses, physical fitness levels can now be seamlessly integrated into our smartphones. Wearable technology is ubiquitous. It’s simply not possible to keep up with every new development, let alone decide what is okay, not okay, or definitely not okay across the board. I am neither sufficiently tech-savvy nor learned in Torah hashkafah to make those decisions.
And yet, after reading all the research, I can’t pretend to be oblivious. What I now know, I can share.
In the end, I developed the program and ran it. What follows are the thoughts and experiences of six adults and teens who participated. These journal entries were written by real people, at different stages in life and from different backgrounds. They have different feelings and viewpoints, but are all evaluating their relationship to technology and being completely honest about their journey. I have changed as few details about them as possible in order to preserve their true voices. Honest introspection and keeping an open mind while assessing one’s most personal lifestyle habits are not for the faint of heart. I hope you will join us on this journey.
When I hear complaints about texting, my initial reflex is to balk. For most people, texting is no different than calling — just an easier way of getting right to the point.
But when I try to reassess it, I can see how texting definitely loosens a person’s restraint against blurting out anything and everything that pops into her mind. Instead of investing in dialing the number and waiting for someone to pick up, we offer running commentary on our lives: Just got home from work, traffic was awful, what should I cook for supper, how come there’s never anything good to eat. And so on. Oversharing, which causes discomfort in verbal conversation, is routine via texting. It’s human nature to want to share, and when it’s made easy, we overdo it.
Then there are our own standards — subjects we won’t talk about, language we won’t use — that drop immediately when we face a screen rather than a human being. I’ve had people send me texts containing words they would absolutely never use in “real life,” but suddenly, maybe because it’s abbreviated, or just simply not vocalized, it’s become a regular part of their virtual vocabulary. Off-color jokes or funny memes are forwarded without a second thought despite objectionable terms because, well, it’s understood that I’m not actually saying these things, I’m just sharing. And it’s so funny.
There is also the issue of kavod habrios. If a real person is standing before us, we’re weighing his entertainment potential against whatever might be available on the small screen. This results in us never being present in any real-time conversation. If the phone is with us, we are never really there.
Choosing the screen over people is most detrimental when we’re with our own families. Most people can’t manage to put the phone away. After all, we’re with our families in the evenings and over the weekend for so many hours — how can we simply take ourselves off the grid? So the phone joins us as we catch up with our spouse, as we bathe our little ones, and as our teens complain to us about their homework. We’re there. We listen. We wipe tears and laugh and joke and serve and clear and clean up. And through it all, we text.
It’s one thing to read about the lives of others, but it’s quite another to take a look at yourself and integrate new knowledge into your life. I’m going to present a few hard questions at the end of every installment. Pull out an old-school pencil and paper, and dare to take on a tech challenge of your own: Scroll through your last batch of texts and answer the following questions:
Did you and others text things that should not have been shared?
Do any of the texts contain language or jokes that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying aloud in conversation? Do any forwarded memes contain inappropriate language?
Is your phone out and visible during everyday encounters with people? Can you keep it in a bag or pocket so it’s not there when you’re talking to others? Can you put it away when you’re at home, and check it only during designated times?
Zahava, age 26
When I was dating my husband, if a texting conversation went beyond small talk, he would interrupt the exchange and call me so we could continue the conversation on the phone. He felt the texting was more fake, and if we were going to build something lasting together, our conversations should be as close to in-person as possible. He was so right — it felt more personal, more real, to talk about things on the phone or in person, and to specifically steer clear of texting when it came to more important topics of conversation. And we’re happily married — so it must’ve worked!
I do think there’s a big difference between maintaining a relationship and building one. I live in Israel now, and without texting it I wouldn’t be able to stay in touch with my friends and family as often as I can. We can stay in contact without matching up schedules or finding a mutual time that never exists, and that’s awesome. Another “plus” is that you have time to think instead of immediately answering.
In my experience, texting gets dangerous when it comes to conversations that are important, uncomfortable to discuss, or sensitive. You might feel more “comfortable” texting than saying it in a conversation, but without the expression or emotion you naturally have when talking, things can be so easily misinterpreted.
Point is, why are you texting? Either it’s actual communication, or just a time-filler, or a cop-out. It’s important to know what you’re using it for.
Rochel, age 35
I have an issue with family chats. My siblings and I use them, just like basically every family in the world.
My youngest brother-in-law got engaged about a month ago. A couple of weeks after the vort, his kallah was added to the family chat. You know how when someone comes to your house for the first time, you suddenly look around and see everything through their eyes, as if it’s for the first time? Maybe you don’t even see the ketchup stain on the ceiling anymore, but a stranger certainly would… That’s how I felt when his kallah was added to the chat. It made me look at our family texts a little differently. I scrolled back through the last few weeks…and it made me uncomfortable.
Family is family, and I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that my comfort level with my husband’s brother, who I know for over a decade, is very different than with a man I just met. I mean, he’s not a stranger — he’s family! On the other hand, he’s not my husband, and he’s not my brother. And I don’t speak to him like he is, I just don’t think that would be appropriate. So how come when it comes to texting, I kind of ignore that? When I’m talking in the group, I’m kind of thinking of my husband and my other sisters-in-law, who I happen to be really close to, and I’ll put up a meme, or an observation that, even if it’s not flat-out inappropriate, is definitely not something I would say if it was just me talking to my brother-in-law.
My new sister-in-law is an outgoing, expressive girl. I was a little surprised at how little she shares online. She’s super-friendly in real life, or even when you text her separately, but it’s really obvious that she barely ever participates in the group texts. And I totally get it. When did this happen, that it’s totally okay for me to participate in this kind of mixed group, sharing and laughing and constant back and forth? Yes, they’re my relatives, but on the other hand, they’re still men who are not my blood relatives. We’re all good frum people — Bais Yaakov girls, yeshivah guys — but for some reason the boundaries just got blurred. And the worst part is that even with my feelings of discomfort, I’m pretty sure I’ll keep doing it. What am I going to do — delete the group chat?
No, actually, the worst part is that, guaranteed, in a few months, my new sister-in-law will be just as desensitized as we are.
Mordechai, age 30
About ten years ago, I saw someone in shul sending an e-mail during chazaras hashatz, and I just couldn’t get over him sitting there and doing that — are you texting G-d, or what?
I think back to that every so often as I text during davening. I’m not as vigilant as I should be these days. I don’t have any justification here, it’s just too easy, when you hear that ping, to look down and fall into the habit.
I’ve tried shutting it off before davening. That worked for a bit. For a while the shul had these small lockers where you could leave your phone. Come to think of it, I haven’t noticed them lately, not sure anyone actually used them. When someone’s phone rings during davening, everyone gives him dirty look, but unfortunately when your phone is on vibrate, and you use it here and there… it’s not only that one guy anymore.
(This series is excerpted from the soon-to-be-released Techtalk: An Honest Look at How Technology Affects the Frum Life, published by Israel Bookshop.)
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 717)
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