July 13, 2024
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July 13, 2024
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An Open Letter to Parents And Teens: Social Media Impacts Our Identities

Here’s the pitch:

This is hard for me to do. I know a fair amount about building school culture and have strong opinions about choosing and reaching our goals, and as an educator I am always learning. Every day I know more about what I don’t know and more about what I need to learn. Therefore, over the years I’ve steered clear of weighing in on communal issues that come close to judging other people. I’ve learned that the truth lies in the nuanced details that are nearly never apparent. If working with teens and families has taught me anything, it’s that there are infinite endings to the stories unfolding before us, and within us. What we see, and think we know, is always incomplete. If I am able to play any role in anyone’s story I find that it’s more possible to do so positively by being a curious and invested partner, who asks and learns together. It is in that spirit that I chose to write this piece. Because, this is an issue that we need to be learning about and navigating together.

I’ve never written TL;DR (too long; don’t read) before! Like most parents of teens, I’m not a digital native. As a rule of thumb I don’t post much on social media, and if I do, almost nothing personal. I’m still learning the lingo, the platforms, the pros and the cons. And I’m committed to understanding what the experience is like to live in this social media world. Not because I like it and not because I’ve given up and think we just need to go along to get along. Rather, it’s because if we want to truly talk to our teens and shape how they navigate the benefits of this reality, and avoid its pitfalls, we need to do it together, with a curiosity and caution that is based in knowledge.

So, I hope this piece is an invitation to learn together—an invitation to engage the challenge and consider whether (or not) what I describe feels familiar to you and resonates with your experiences or the realities your teens are facing.

Here’s the quick takeaway:

It’s not about the phones, it’s about our identity. It’s about whether we value discernment and moderation and know how to act on those values. Yes, cell phones are ubiquitous, addictive and a source of both good and bad. The same is true of social media. There is good and bad on every popular teen platform. So, let’s have a real conversation about our core values? Can we interrogate whether we are value-aligned in the way we interact with the social media that is in our hands, our pockets and therefore in our brains? Do we model our values in real life (IRL) AND also in our social media usage? Are we openly working to navigate the tensions that are intrinsic to this new reality? When and how often do we say yes to this and no to that? Do we exercise the values of discernment and moderation? The short answer is: We can do better! We must do better or we risk living with bifurcated identities, neither one being particularly real.

Here’s the challenge:

Let’s be real; we know that cell phones are not going away! We can not cancel the paradigm shift or change the fact that these devices are a part of our reality. Let’s be real; we also know that cell phones are not only convenient and helpful, they are also acting upon our identities in powerful and harmful ways.

What we can do is work on being consistent with deliberate decisions about how/when we use cell phones. We can train ourselves towards moderation and discernment by being critical consumers. We can develop the habit of questioning openly what are the benefits and deficits of specific platforms. We should have clear answers to when and why we do or we don’t post. Perhaps most importantly, we must understand that our online self is as real as our IRL self and therefore each should resemble one another.

Therefore, we must consider how we can live integrated lives where our cell phones and social media use is governed by the same values that are prominent and in, and consistent with a life governed by Torah.

Why moderation and discernment?

These values are foundational to our lives as Jews committed to utilizing the best of modernity to enhance our lives as ovdei Hashem. The tension in these choices is regularly evident and addressed by many community leaders. It emerges as a prominent theme in the life works of Rabbi Norman Lamm z”l. A champion for religious integrity, Rabbi Lamm, z”l, beseeched his audience to seek out an authenticity in their religious lives that reflects the Talmud’s ideal of tocho k’boro, where what we value and how we live are aligned. And still, Rabbi Lamm’s, z”l, entreaties often call upon “a passionate moderation” where our core values and personal identities are striving to make sense of our experiences in “an alma de-peruta, an imperfect and fragmented world.” Rabbi Lamm, z”l, amongst many other scholars, considered the Rambam’s shvil hazahav to apply to more than just the mechanism for deciding what to do at any given moment. Instead, he argued that this was a lifelong aspiration, key to our character development, that we built lives that overall reflected attitudes of moderation. We all know that means sometimes utilizing great discipline and employing extreme decisions while at other times recognizing the need for moderation. I’d argue that cell phones and social media are asking us, challenging us, to build habits of discernment in fulfillment of v’asita hatov v’hayashar b’einei Hashem. Beyond the issues of mutar and assur lies the space where all that is permitted is not always helpful. The research demands that we work hard to pull back from an excessive and harmful dependency on cell phones and social media that is currently prevalent.

Here’s the research:

The research has shown that increased social media use has a significant impact on one’s self image. Yes, there are clear value-added benefits to social media that include:

Staying informed—good source of learning and inspiration.

Staying connected—keeping up with friends and building a network of good people with similar interests.

Expression of creativity—encourages self expression and celebrates myriad forms of creativity.

Healthy positive entertainment—sharing, creating, and consuming new fun media.

Yes, I would propose that these are values that we should support: It can be argued that at a certain age cell phones and social media might be necessary for a healthy sense of connectedness and offer equal access to the many positive opportunities. However, all of that is only true IF we can responsibly regulate our usage and have the tools for choosing wisely, and excersizing moderation and discernment.

Because, the research has also shown that increased social media usage has a significant negative impact on our self image. A recent MIT study linked the rollout of Facebook amongst college students to a marked increase in mental distress amongst those same college students. Furthermore the amount of time spent on Facebook, in this study and others, also correlated to the intensity of the decline in mental health. Not so surprisingly, researchers studying social media use amongst teens looked at the impact of the top five social media platforms (YouTube, Tiktok, Snapchat, iMessage and Instagram) and similar concerns emerged with alarming increases in anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia etc. Notably, studies have shown that the most vulnerable group impacted by increased social media usage is adolescent girls.

Furthermore, the spike in mental health crises in recent years is directly correlated to the increased amount of time one spends on social media. Did you know:

58% teens report that they are “almost constantly” on social media

54% teens would find it very difficult to cut down on their social media use

Consider the impact of spending an average of 7.3 hours in a virtual world that incentives and promotes:

Chasing likes and external approvals

Faking perfection even while struggling (aka “Duck Syndrome” gliding elegantly above the water line and frantically treading water beneath)

Watching hours of extremely curated perfect lives

Camera filters to create photos//wp-content/uploads/images/snapshots that aren’t real

The smoke screen that social media creates amplifies the gap between our real struggles and the imagined fake “realities” we’ve invested emotions and time to design. It shouldn’t be surprising that the cumulative effect is one that intensifies feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, jealousy, loneliness and exhaustion. It’s a futile cycle of fakeness that hurts and makes it hard to know what’s real.

Here are some tools for parents and teens:

1. Take social media seriously and talk about it.

2. Investigate each platform and discuss what’s good and bad about it.

3. Create a healthy plan for what and when you consume social media.

4. Choose together what limits to establish.

5. Model moderation.

6. Consider keeping a journal (or downloading an app) to chart how much time is being spent or wasted.

7. Take “social holidays” in addition to Shabbos when parents and teens make shared commitments about when phones are away or when it’s a good idea to get off social media and detox for a bit.

Here’s the value proposal:

The way we relate to our cell phones and our social media consumption/presence is what will build a healthier culture. We need to build a habit of boundaries and learn to be comfortable saying no, not now or not this. IMHO this is the work that we need to do in order to become stronger and wiser in this digital world. These skills will equip both the reluctant digital immigrants (us parents) and the digital natives with the tools to navigate a new reality and remain true to our core values, online and IRL.

Let’s be real. Establishing new habits, and building new muscles, is hard work. Add to that the difficulty involved in drawing lines and limits, both IRL and online, that go against cultural trends, and it should be clear that we will need to work on this together. I hope this piece, the ideas, questions and tools that I shared entice you to take practical steps towards greater moderation and discernment in your family’s cell phone and social media usage. I know that’s what we are working on in this Bergen County School-Shul Tech Initiative’ and I hope you’re intrigued enough to join us.

CB Neugroschl is head of school at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

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