This article is the last of a three-part series on our relationship to technology. This article draws upon much wisdom gleaned from others, most notably the thoughts and research cited in the Fall 2015 issue of Klal Perspectives, dedicated to the subject of technology. The reader is encouraged to read the entire issue, and to accept this general citation for much of what is included here.
Technology and Your Children
Our children are growing up in a very different world than their parents. They are “digital natives,” born into a world with radically changed norms of communication, study and recreation, where they and their contemporaries are more likely to text than talk, scan than read, tweet than meet. And as is the case with adults, while these technologies have created some welcome opportunities they have also produced challenges, many of which appear more pronounced in children and teens.
Concern for this trend is not reserved for the luddites or the frummies. The American Academy of Pediatrics in its 2013 position paper on technology recommended limiting total entertainment screen time to less than one or two hours daily, and discouraged screen media exposure altogether for children under two. They also advised keeping TV sets and internet-connected devices out of children’s bedrooms, and monitoring children’s media usage.
Colleagues in Jewish education have shared that by simple observation of their new students’ affect, they can identify within the first five minutes of the school year which of the children have less restricted access to technology. A recent Wall Street Journal story (Teach Your Children Well, Riley January 1, 2016) quoted the same sentiment from teachers at Mountain Oak, a secular charter school, who “say they can walk into a classroom and immediately tell who has been using devices at home. ‘We see it in their behavioral problems, their ability to reason, their cognitive skills, even their ability to communicate with other people.’”
Numerous studies have shown that more and more children are sleep-deprived, as their technology laden bedrooms keep them occupied with initiating or responding to texts and emails late into the night and early in the morning. Sleep deprivation has in turn been linked with obesity, depression, mood swings and lower grades.
Dangerous habits such as texting while driving are commonplace amongst youth. Recent studies have shown that 92% of college students acknowledge reading texts while driving, despite the fact that such distractions account for ten percent of fatal car accidents.
These – aside from other issues raised in parts I and II of this series – are just a few of the obvious and recognizable downsides and dangers of unrestricted access to technology.
Yet the same American Academy of Pediatrics 2013 position paper notes that “many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents. In a recent study two-thirds of children and teenagers report that their parents have ‘no rules’ about time spent with the media. Many young children see PG-13 and R-rated movies – either online, on TV or in movie theaters – that contain problematic content and are clearly inappropriate for them. Few parents have rules about cell phone use for their children or adolescents. More than 60% of teenagers send and/or receive text messages after ‘lights out’, and they report increased levels of tiredness, including at school. One study found that 20% of adolescents either sent or received a sexually explicit image by cell phone or internet.”
In a study of day school students conducted by therapist Debbie Fox in the Los Angeles area, a majority of adolescents said they would be more restrictive with their children than their parents were with them.
Evidently, we need to step it up as parents, to play a guiding and involved role in helping our children navigate the challenge of technology. The critical responsibility we must embrace in ensuring the continuity of our families, faith and values is the Torah’s familiar Seder night mandate of Vehigadeta lebincha, “You shall instruct your child.” We cannot afford to abdicate our role as parents, to be “out to lunch” on this one.
In its design of the educational framework of the Seder, the Torah provides the basic elements of how to accomplish the task of instruction most effectively, all of which are perfectly relevant to guide our children with regard to technology.
Principle I: Be a Role Model
The teaching of the Seder’s four sons all follow on their observation of their parents’ behavior. Our children watch us and learn from what we are doing. As such, any discussion of guiding our children in the use of technology is futile if we are not guiding ourselves. If our use of technology is unlimited, we cannot effectively limit theirs. If we do not create distraction-free times and zones, they won’t either. If we are not engaging in positive and direct human interaction, we cannot expect them to. If we are checking our phones while we are driving, you can be sure that they will too. If however we maintain a careful and effective approach to safely and wisely integrating technology into our lives in a way that our children recognize and benefit from, this will have the most profoundly instructive effect. In this – as in all areas of parenting – children will do as we do, not as we say.
Principle II: Relate to Each Child
The Torah provides different teaching models for each of the four sons, recognizing that effective teaching comes in the context of a relationship. Only when you understand your child and where he or she is coming from, can you effectively instruct them. As Dr. David Pelcovitz says, “Rules without Relationships produce Rebellion.”
Our children can readily appreciate and understand our attitudes and rules regarding technology, if we will both take the time to help them appreciate those attitudes and engage them in positive replacement activities.
They will know and recognize the healthier feeling that follows book reading or active play, as opposed to screen time. They will recognize the value of less exposure to violent and disturbing images and activities.
At the same time, we must empathize with and understand their need – real and perceived – to have the same unfettered access to technology as “everyone else.”
Principle III: Don’t be Afraid to Parent
The Torah guides us not to back off from the rebellious child. Our children need us, even if they seem to resist our involvement. Show them your commitment to relationship, demonstrate your empathy and understanding of their challenges, and be open and straightforward about your right, responsibility and intent to monitor your child’s technological activity.
It is worth quoting the insightful words of Dr. Rona Novick:
Often adults are uncomfortable ramping up their supervision of youngsters’ cyber lives, feeling it is an invasion of privacy or a compromise of their relationship. Both adults and children, however, need to understand that there is no true privacy in the technological realm, and therefore there is no right to demand privacy from those who love and wish to protect them. What teens share in cyberspace which is or may become public, needs to be shared with caring adults as well. Inevitably, teens will protest. They would be incorrect in arguing that a parent’s access to their internet postings is tantamount to reading their private diary, or listening in on their phone conversations. If such supervision appears intrusive, if teens complain that their privacy is being invaded, parents should take comfort in the fact that through this supervision our children are also being taught that their cyber footprint is both public and permanent, and that their parents care. It is an opportunity to teach our children that we live our lives as Torah Jews, both in person and on line, when we are known and when we are anonymous.
Principle IV: Establish Your Home as a Safe Haven
On the original Pesach night, the Jewish people were to remain inside their homes, as the destructive forces would not be allowed in there. Ever since, the strength of the Jewish home has been its power to create an environment of its own making, where parents define the atmosphere in which they raise and nurture their children. When done in the framework of relationship and understanding, children will welcome and profoundly appreciate this, even if they express the opposite of appreciation in the short term.
Technology renders the walls of our home porous, at best, compromising our ability to build an environment and atmosphere that communicates and reinforces our value system. If we are to succeed in being the primary influence on our children, our homes will need a “firewall,” in the form of controls on technological use and access that each and every one of us embrace.
Principle V: Teach Character and Leadership
“But everyone has one!” This is the mantra of the child, as he or she protests the parent’s resistance to providing them with the latest gadget, or on the imposition of other limits. Young people – especially those technologically connected – suffer from FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out, being different than their peers. Adults are not very different, as we just follow the common trends without applying thought and judgment. This is something we must overcome, for our sake and for our children’s.
Before the Jewish people closed the doors to their homes on that first Pesach night creating that safe haven, they took the blood of the Pesach sacrifice that they had offered and smeared it on their doorposts. This was an act of defiance towards their Egyptian masters, an act of breaking free, as they slaughtered publicly and demonstrably the gods of their masters. In a beautiful essay, Natan Scharansky described the significance of that gesture:
In these commandments, God offered the Israelites something better than comfort. As they prepared to defy their masters, God offered them the promise of a national future, complete with a land, children, and the memory of the Exodus. Not only will you survive this night, His orders implied: You will thrive. Your defiance will mean more than a moment of personal bravery. It will be the cornerstone of your national future, something for your descendants to look back on with pride. By smearing their defiance on their doors, then, the Israelites transcended both their personal concerns and their particular historical moment. The act that declared their inner freedom from Egyptian tyranny was also the act that bound them together as a nation with a noble past and a hopeful future.
Said simply, if we harbor the hope to provide instruction and guidance to our children, we must also give them the strength to find their own source of instruction and guidance and not feel enslaved to the beliefs pervading the surrounding culture. When we demonstrate that kind of courage and build that character for ourselves, we can readily pass it on to our children. Most importantly it will help them see that we are truly not limiting them; we are actually freeing them from limitations by teaching them how to be truly free. We are teaching them that just because everybody does it, we do not have to. We do what we do because it is fitting for us, not because it allows us to fit in.
Principle VI: Work Together
Pesach is the ultimate opportunity to convey and perpetuate our values because we all do it together. Fundamentally at the Seder we affirm the importance of not removing ourselves from the Klal. And visibly, when children can question and probe, reenact and remember, together with their parents, they travel the road to continuity together.
The challenge of technology is not reserved for our youth. We are all working hard to figure this out, and we are all struggling to find the right way to integrate it into our lives in a balanced and productive way. We should share the struggle with our children. We should work together, establishing norms and rules that we all will strive to live by, creating a framework within which we can reinforce and encourage each other.
Many have suggested a familial contract, where every member of the family commits together to maintain certain standards, and welcomes the support of the others in the struggle to meet them. Below is a sample contract that you can modify to your specific situation. Whatever the details, the principles remain the same. We will succeed by making small commitments to improve, to take control of our use of technology rather than allowing ourselves to be in its grip, creating a supportive framework to meet those goals.
May G-d grant us the strength and the courage to utilize the magnificent tool of technology to our greatest advantage, and to help each other do the same.
The Media Time Family Pledge (From the American Academy of Pediatrics)
Kids and Teens
- I will never give out personal information online or by text and will avoid all chat rooms except ones my mother and father have looked at and approved.
- I understand my parents have a right to check into my media history on my computer and phone and other devices such as iPod Touch, games, and whatever else I use regularly. I will try and keep my total screen time to ______ minutes a day except when doing a project for school, or when my parents give me permission.
- I will not watch shows or play games that are inappropriate for me or for friends and family watching or playing with me.
- I will check what my kids are doing online and on their phones, consider using parent controls, and use them judiciously.
- I will let my kids know before I check their computers or enable parent controls on their computers or gaming units.
- I will take the time to be interested in what my kids are doing online and in the digital world and talk to them about that world.
- I will help them make good media choices.
- If my child makes a mistake, I will ask questions and learn what happened before I punish or take away technology.
- I will only take away technology as a last resort for defying our family pledge when other consequences have failed to work, such as reinforcing the rules and increase off-line chores.
- We will talk as a family at a meal a day with no technology in sight!
- We will agree to technology-free times such as meals, weekends, and vacations.
- We won’t sacrifice important family time for media or digital use of any kind. If media gets in the way, we need to recognize we are using it too much or in a way that is not helping our family.
- We agree to use technology responsibly by not:
– Texting or talking on a cell phone while driving.
– Using cell phones in a public location where it may annoy others.
– Using technology to harm others by engaging in bullying or slanderous actions.
– Listening to music with earbuds in a manner that prevents us from hearing
passing cars or pedestrians, and never while in the car as the driver.
Kids and Teens:_________________________________________
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion, one of the leading Orthodox congregations in Baltimore, Maryland. His articles and shiurim on a broad array of Torah topics can be found at www.rabbihauer.org. This essay can also be viewed here. Rabbi Hauer is active in local communal leadership in many areas, with an emphasis on education and on social service organizations serving the Jewish community, including charitable services, hospice and domestic and child sexual abuse prevention. Rabbi Hauer visits Israel frequently and is very involved in Israel-related activities. He is a founding editor of the online journal “Klal Perspectives” and leads a leadership training program for rabbis and communal leaders. He lectures on a wide variety of topics in Jewish law, Jewish thought, and historical and contemporary issues.