Forget all analogies between internet today and TV of the 1950s and '60s. The battle led by gedolim in those decades, when no one could fully have seen how far the tame family fare of that era would degenerate, can only be described as prescient. But it does not provide a ready model for a communal response to internet today.
TV provided entertainment, and its absence from the home did no more than confirm that Torah Jews exist outside of the cultural mainstream. Internet, by contrast, will increasingly become an essential tool for the performance of many of the most basic functions of modern life. Even were it theoretically possible to live without it, most Torah Jews will not cut themselves off completely.
That is not to suggest for a moment that internet, or more broadly interconnectivity, does not pose an immense threat to the spiritual health of Torah Jews as individuals and as a community. To date, most attention has been directed at the dangers that might be classified as "do not stray after your eyes." Talk to any communal rav, and he will tell you of the havoc wreaked in homes by internet, and of the lives and marriages destroyed. Internet does not just facilitate the fulfillment of illicit desires; it creates new desires previously unimagined. On-line (ironically) recovery groups, like GuardYourEyes, have come into existence to help those – sometimes respected communal figures – recover from having strayed after their eyes on internet.
Less attention has been given to the dangers in the category of "do not stray after your hearts." The Internet puts an unfathomable amount of information and disinformation within easy access. And, in some ways, the danger of minus is even greater than the visual temptations because it will prove impossible to create filters to weed out minus with the same type of algorithms used to screen the former.
One of the salutary effects of internet has been to break the monopoly of the mainstream media on information. That has proven ever more vital as once respected information sources, like The New York Times, engage more heavily in advocacy journalism of a highly ideological bent.
But the inability to maintain a monopoly on information or opinion has important implications for the Torah community as well, and not all are benign. More than twenty years ago, a friend commented that the great problem of our age was that every fool has access to a printing press, and can post his wall posters all over Meah Shearim. Well today, every fool can gain a worldwide platform for his views, without leaving his chair. Those who would once have gone unheard or been ignored can vent their criticism of gedolim, often with anonymity, to a wide audience. That has important implications for the nature of rabbinical authority, and will only lead to even greater cynicism about exercise of Torah leadership.
(The phenomenon of other voices being heard is not entirely negative. All societies require feedback mechanisms between rulers and subjects, leaders and followers. Internet comment could theoretically be one such form of feedback, with the caveat that those most likely to comment tend to be a self-selected group of aggrieved people, often with too much time on their hands.)
THE PRECEDING THREATS are mostly known and have been widely discussed, particularly those in the category of "after your eyes." But, in my view, the greatest danger of internet may well be more subtle and less quantifiable: It will turn us into less serious, shallower Jews.
Just the waste of time alone would suffice to do so. How often do we tell ourselves that we are going on-line just to check our emails (for the umpteenth time that day) or check a favorite site for just five minutes, and find ourselves, in the manner of someone who tells himself he will eat only one potato chip or smoke one cigarette, adding just another five-minutes and then another? Even if we succeeded in confining ourselves to just the promised five minutes, those five minutes add up, and very fast. Just think of the number of times that Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, completed Mishnayos bein gavra l'gavra.
Those rapidly accumulating five minutes not only take us away from Torah learning, but away from our children and spouses. How many of us treat a spouse's arrival home as an unwanted interruption from our browsing and keep our greetings perfunctory so that we can return to our favorite activity?
While internet browsing may not be physically addicting, there is little question of its addictive impact. Those teenagers who profess a vague allegiance to halacha but cannot refrain from texting each other on Shabbos, sometimes from right across the table, are but the most glaring example. I have seen surveys in which people are asked whether they would prefer to be a week without their spouse or their handheld device. The handheld devices win.
We have reached the point that to be seen in public without talking on a cellphone, or checking an Ipad, or without earplugs in one's ears is perceived as an embarrassment – a sign that no one wants to speak to us or that we have nothing to do. When we send an email, we wait at our computers expectantly for a reply: Little does it occur to us that others may not be checking their emails every five minutes, or might have something more important to do than respond to us. Few still relish time to be alone with their thoughts without fear of interruption at any moment.
The very manner in which we absorb information on-line -- and not through reading -- changes how we think and what kind of people we are. Scientific studies show that the neural connectors of our brains are being shaped by constant exposure to internet. The type of reading encouraged by the internet – constantly jumping from one text to another or to a video or other visual image, writes Tufts literature professor Maryanne Wolf, is inimical to our capacity for deep reading and "the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction." The result is a loss of capacity for contemplation and wisdom.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE? Above all, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Even if bans on Internet were the ideal, I'm afraid, that they will be largely ignored. Thus their value is primarily exhortatory: They serve to warn that the internet is highly dangerous. But if they are ignored, they will only encourage deceit on the part of parents and students. Worse, those who ignore bans will often end up using internet without proper filters (not that the latter provide any kind of fail-safe protection.) We should do everything possible to encourage protections, including the development of improved filters, the use of buddy systems, which utilize the power of humiliation by providing someone else with a full record of one's internet activity.
Parents must not just throw up their hands and treat the internet and its attendant risks as the inevitable price of technological progress. I'm always struck on my trips to America by the ubiquity of handheld devices, capable of connecting to the internet, in the hands of teenagers. In my opinion, no handheld device should be permitted in any educational framework; their presence makes teaching and learning virtually impossible.
It seems to me that the Torah community in Israel has done a better job with regard to handheld devices, through the development of kosher phones, without internet connectivity or SMS. (The occasional convenience of the latter is more than outweighed by the following statistic: the average American teenager sends 3,339 text messages per month.) Admittedly, the market power of the Torah community in Israel enables us to demand internet-free options from the cellphone companies. But I'm sure more could be done in America as well.
Teenagers should not have computers in their rooms, where they can do what they want behind closed doors, and access to internet on the family's computers should be limited to hours where parents are home to supervise its use. If the home has a WiFi connection, it must be blocked in such a way that children cannot just connect through their own, easily hidden, handheld devices.
But at the end of the day, all the protections in the world will only take us so far. Ultimately the only protection against the siren song of the internet is the development of rich internal resources in ourselves and in our children. That requires a clear-eyed appraisal of the wiles of the yetzer hara and the ability to structure one's life and establish boundaries to counteract the yetzer's tricks. Above all, it requires a rich spiritual life beside which the attractions of internet pale.
A leading rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael told me recently that the development of those inner resources is the great challenge of our time. Nothing else, he assured me, would be anything more than a stopgap solution. And he was far from confident that as a community we would prevail.
Already eighty years ago, the great Mirrer Mashgiach Rav Yerucham Levovitz described the loss of the ability to think deeply as the source of the societal degeneration predicted by Chazal during Ikvesa d'Mashicha. Yet he would surely have been amazed by how rapid have been those processes of degeneration. That decline long preceded the internet, which has only further accelerated the downward spiral, and they have not left the Torah world unscathed. Reversing that spiral is not just a technical problem, and the answer will not lie in technical adjustments.