Our Children Are Begging Us to Stop
Even teens realize that things have gotten out of hand
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Less than a week before Rosh Hashanah, a standing-room only crowd of 3,200 Chicagoans gathered to contemplate the impact of modern technology on their lives and those of their children. Close to 80 rabbanim, across the spectrum of Chicago Orthodoxy, graced the dais.
Even the organizers of the evening, Suchi Ehrman and Aaron Tropper, were shocked by the magnitude of the turnout. They had initially set up only 2,500 seats. One old-timer commented that he had not seen so many Chicago Jews gathered together since the 1948 celebrations of the birth of Israel.
Dr. David Pelcovitz, one of the three main speakers of the evening — the other two were Rav Elya Brudny and Rav Ephraim Wachsman — put the size of the crowd in perspective. Dr. Pelcovitz cited experiments demonstrating that people are likely to underestimate the steepness of a hill and have an easier time climbing it if they are surrounded by friends and family. Likewise, Chicago Orthodoxy was acknowledging that the threat of constant connectivity is great, and decided to gather together to encourage one another to surmount the challenge.
In addition to hearing powerful derashos, each attendee received a 68-page booklet written and compiled by Rabbi Eric Goldman, a mashgiach in Skokie Yeshiva and the director of community education for the Technology Awareness Group (TAG), an organization that provides filters for various devices.
The booklet is divided into ten areas of focus and offers a tip in each one — such as, "turn off all devices before entering shul," and "don't look at devices in the middle of conversations." But, in general, the approach was to provide all members of the community with the information needed to make changes and the inspiration to do so, without a set of strict guidelines. And that approach seems to have worked. On a recent post-asifah visit to Chicago, everyone my wife or I spoke to mentioned changes they had made in their use of technology, some of them quite dramatic.
CERTAINLY THE SPEAKERS and the written materials made a compelling case for the impact of out-of-control technology use on the quality of our relationships, our parenting, our davening, kedushas Yisrael, and on the ability of our children to concentrate and learn.
The creators of much of today's screen technology and what appears on the screen have become horrified by its impact on their own children and instituted highly restrictive rules on use, according to a recent New York Times article, "A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley." Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, describes the new technology as closer to crack cocaine than candy. It is beyond the capacity of parents to control, he acknowledges; it's "going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain."
Addiction is not too strong a word to describe much of technology use. Three-quarters of users never turn their devices off, and the first thing that two-thirds of owners of handheld devices do in the morning is check their messages. Dr. Pelcovitz shared his favorite study from the July 2014 Science Magazine in which technology users were told to shut off their devices and contemplate their lives.
They quickly became distressed to the extent that when offered the opportunity to administer an electroshock to relieve the boredom, 67% of the men and 25% of the women did so.
Technology has turned us into ever more distracted human beings. Even the presence of a device in front of us that has been shut off lowers our ability to perform cognitive tasks and to concentrate and show empathy in conversations with others. Studies suggest that to establish an emotional bond with someone generally requires 60% to 70% eye contact in conversation. Today, the average conversation is in the 30% to 60% range.
Pervasive technology has distorted how we think. Rabbi Zev Cohen, one of the principal rabbinic organizers of the gathering (along with Rabbi Zalman Leib Eichenstein and Rabbi Yaakov Robinson), told me that there were two stories that motivated him to get involved. One was of a kallah who upon being presented with jewelry by her chassan in the cheder yichud, promptly took a selfie and sent it out.
At the very moment that she should have been laying the foundation for a life with her new husband that is shared only by them and out of sight of the entire world, she was inviting the entire world into their private space.
Much of the evening was devoted to the impact of technology on young people, both directly and indirectly, as a consequence of parental distraction.
In her widely cited Atlantic article, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" social scientist Jean Twenge notes dramatic jumps in various teen pathologies coincident with the introduction of smartphones. They can be summed up as: The greater the screen time the greater the anxiety and depression. From 2007 to 2015, the United States witnessed a terrifying leap in teen suicide: 300% among girls; 200% among boys.
A study conducted by researchers at the London School of Economics found that banning smartphones in schools led to a clear improvement in test scores. And a South Korean study of teenagers with Internet and smartphone addictions showed higher levels of a certain neurotransmitter that results in reduced levels of control and ability to concentrate without distraction.
Teenagers, in particular, need periods of stillness in their lives to deal with the welter of emotions to which they are subject, said Dr. Pelcovitz. But technology has done the opposite: It has hyped them up.
In recognition of the damage of overexposure to technology, France recently banned all smartphones and other Internet-connected devices from schools for children 3 to 15.
TODAY CHILDREN FIND themselves competing for their parents' attention against the latters' mobile devices. And even when the parents are not actively engaged, the mere presence of the device reduces the amount of eye contact they have with their children. That lack of eye contact, according to Dr. Pelcovitz, is associated with decreased capacity for empathy, impaired language development, lower emotional resilience, and greater negativity in the children.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, recommends that parents turn off their devices completely during certain periods of the day: from the time your child awakens until he leaves for school, when you or your child come home, when picking up your child, during the family dinner, and at bedtime.
Rabbi Cohen's second story involved parents who brought their young son to a park and placed him on a swing. The parents then separated to opposite sides of the park — each to use his or her mobile device. After a while, the child, realizing he had been abandoned, began to cry. Eventually, the mother heard him, but when she walked back to the swing she began absentmindedly pushing the wrong child.
The threat to children from detached, distracted parents is not just emotional, it is physical. When ATT rolled out its new technology package in stages across America, emergency room visits spiked in each area where the new package was introduced.
The accidents are not limited to parents: 58% of traffic accidents involving teenagers are caused by driver distraction, yet 80% of teenagers do not think that their smartphone apps are a distraction while driving.
EVEN TEENS REALIZE that things have gotten out of hand, and are looking to their parents for guidance and firm limits. In one survey of Los Angeles yeshivah and seminary students by child safety advocate Debbie Fox, over 50% of respondents said that they would be stricter than their parents concerning technology use. Dr. Pelcovitz described a teenager involved in continual battles with his parents over technology who nevertheless had the self-awareness to acknowledge that he was relieved his parents held firm.
Rav Ephraim Wachsman summed up the evening by quoting from Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev's Kedushas Levi. "The heilige Berditchever" writes that at every chuppah all the future generations that will result from the union are present. The proliferation of tears at the chuppah are the product of the pleas of those children urging their future parents to prepare them to receive the holy mesorah so that they can pass it on to their own children. Today, those pleas might include: Model responsible technology use; pay attention to us and show us your love so that we grow to be well-adjusted, positive Jews; and set limits and protect us from the dangers all around.