When people go online, they often find themselves being drawn to sites, articles, and pictures that go way over their red lines
ears ago, I had occasion to speak at a shabbaton for a Bais Yaakov high school, on some generic topic. After my speech, a student asked to speak with me privately. We found a quiet space and sat down. In fits and starts, with a fair amount of crying, she recounted that when she was about eight years old, she was at a friend’s house and they were playing on the computer. They were not alone in the house, but there was no adult supervision around. This girl’s parents were confident nothing inappropriate would go on at this friend’s house because, as she told me, her friend’s father was a rabbi. Her friend asked her if she wanted to see “something interesting.” A few clicks took her to a website with images and clips featuring the worst of the worst.
This girl — child, really — was overwhelmed. She was horrified but also fascinated, and then filled with shame for being interested. They watched for some time (five minutes? fifteen minutes? half an hour?) before logging off, and she’s never done anything like that since. But the images that were burned into her brain continued to haunt, confuse, and torment her eight years later. As an eight-year-old, she couldn’t begin to process what she had seen. She never told anyone.
I have no idea why she shared this with me. Maybe she felt I was an adult who could help her make sense of her feelings, and maybe it’s easier to open up to someone you don’t know, someone you won’t have to face every day. She was filled with guilt, completely confused, and angry at the adults who could leave two children unprotected.
Terrible story. Really a shame. Gut reaction: What were the parents thinking? Why didn’t they have a filter? Next thought: That would never happen in my house. My kids can’t get online without the password. They’re safe.
But it’s not just about kids, and it’s not just about viewing the worst. What about ourselves?
An interesting fact: Everyone’s personal standards are lower online. Most of us have fairly well-defined red lines we set for ourselves. We know what kind of content we allow ourselves to read in books, newspapers, magazines. We know what kind of videos and clips we choose to watch (or not watch). And yet when people go online, they often find themselves being drawn to sites, articles, and pictures that go way over the red lines they have set for themselves.
This happens partly because it’s just so easy to click, and so many images constantly appear while we’re online doing business or research, that it hardly feels like a choice. The medium of the computer also makes it feel less “real.” So you click the first time just out of curiosity, and then you go back because it was interesting. Even though you’re sliding quickly, you’re oblivious as your standards change.
And it’s not only about explicit content. There are clips and videos from our own community that started out with the (debatably) harmless goal of just giving viewers a laugh. Problem is, they’ve accomplished this by making fun of certain sects of religious Jews, promoting stereotypes, or mocking religious practice. These spoofs carry with them real issues of lashon hara and leitzanus, and they undermine our ability to grow spiritually, respect people who are greater than us, and relate to people who are different from us. That may be a bit more than you bargained for when you clicked “play.”
Was there a red line that you set for yourself when you first got Internet access that you find you’ve since crossed? Analyze how that happened.
Do you have Internet habits that developed without a careful assessment of whether they are appropriate for you? Reassess the apps, articles, and sites you expose yourself to on a regular basis.
Dina, age 16
When I was very young, my parents made me use my laptop only in public areas, like in the kitchen or living room. I’m not exactly sure when that changed. Maybe they felt that at a certain age they could trust me to use my own judgment. Maybe they believed that since we have a really good (read: expensive) filter, nothing bad could really happen.
I do remember having a conversation with my mother where she told me she felt like it’s impossible to be completely protected; that even if parents are very strict, their kids will still manage to access whatever they want, if they’re determined to. And I agree — if someone really wants to, there’s no parent in the world able to stop it.
But… does that mean we don’t try? I’ve definitely seen things — even with a filter — that I shouldn’t have. And I start getting confused… like, how bad is it to watch these things? Where are my red lines supposed to be?
I don’t want to have this conversation with my parents — even though they’re really great — because to be honest, I’m not interested in them making all the rules. I like the freedom I have now. The stuff I’m not supposed to be seeing… I’m not ready to give it up yet.
Ilana, age 26
Taking in secular stuff like music, movies, or articles used to be an active choice. At this point, it’s just so available, so instantly accessible, it feels more like a reflex than a choice.
I’m guessing the solution is to have hard-and-fast standards that you never break. That would make everything a conscious decision. You wouldn’t just automatically click on anything that looks interesting (“I’ll just watch ten minutes to see what it’s all about”).
It’s really hard. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do anything about it.
Shlomo, age 30
I’m the only guy writing for this series, and I want to make at least one thing crystal clear: I would estimate that the amount of men who have accessed something truly hard-core inappropriate, either on purpose or by accident, is 95 percent. The material is all explicit, and it’s all right there.
Let there be no misunderstanding: If a guy spends time on the Internet, he will see it. Clips, pictures, movie trailers to terrible movies, it’s all right there. Anyone who spends time on video sites will run into it for sure. If you are an Internet surfer, you will see these things.
You want to avoid it? Get your phone TAG-ed, or use a white-list filter or WebChaver. There is no other option. If he owns a smartphone with no protection, rest assured that your son, brother, or husband absolutely has viewed or is currently viewing explicit material. That is the reality.
Tehila, age 16
I remember a couple of years ago thinking about a specific show and saying to myself, I would never watch that. That’s going too far. If I ever find myself watching that, I need to reevaluate.
I’m just remembering this now, a few years later and two seasons in. Now I’m not thinking “red line,” or even “red flag.” Now I’m thinking, come on, is it really that bad?
I guess you just get desensitized over time.
As a side note, I’m curious about parents who won’t let a TV in their house, but they trust their kids with smartphones. That just makes no sense to me. I’m sure they’re fabulous kids, but they’re still just kids. And the excuse that “we may as well give them access now so they’ll learn how to use it responsibly” is weak. You don’t want your 13-year-old watching TV, but you’re basically giving her 24/7 access to any channel she wants. Do you really think she’ll be able to withstand the temptation every day? Any normal, healthy kid with a smartphone is eventually going to end up somewhere inappropriate online. It’s the most typical thing in the world. What are these parents thinking?
Mazal, age 16
There was this news app that I used to be kind of obsessed with. I think one of the things that made it so addictive was that every time you refreshed the page, new things popped up, so there was always more stuff to look at. I’m being a little generous by calling it a news app — it was more of a general-interest type of thing, with quizzes, pictures, and articles.
I actually recently deleted it because, well… something inappropriate popped up while my parents happened to be watching, and they made me delete the app immediately. Truth is, had they not been there, I wouldn’t even have blinked. I’ve seen much, much worse, and so have all my friends.
It’s been a week without the app, and it’s interesting — I’m no longer turning to my phone as much. I don’t think I realized how much time that app used to kill. I would always scroll through it before bed for five minutes… ten… half an hour…
Sara, age 26
This is embarrassing because it’s such a teenager thing, and I am so far from being a teenager, but I often find myself wondering: Does it really make a difference? I know that what I read and what I watch and what I listen to has an effect on me. I don’t have any doubts about that.
But then again, I’m not reading terrible things. And I’m not watching R-rated movies. I’m also not a 13-year-old girl trying to make sense of the world around me. I think I have a pretty good outlook on life and a solid hashkafic foundation. So will listening to some pareve song with a nice message and pretty tune affect me that much? Just because it’s not Jewish, does that automatically mean I’m absorbing secular values? I know, I know, such a teen question.
Same question about videos. I don’t watch anything that’s blatantly offensive. But the stuff that I do watch, it’s secular. Is it really doing me damage?
As I’m writing this I know, as a believing Jew, that the answer is yes. Yes, it has a negative effect on me, even if it’s hard for me to see.
But when I’m sitting there with my finger on the screen, it’s just so hard to live by that belief.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 720)
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