Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Modern Orthodox community until now has generally had a flexible approach to use of internet-based technology by children. In the past few years, psychologists, educators, caring people of any or no religion, and the highest levels of the federal government have become deeply concerned about such use, in particular image-based social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok. I call upon Modern Orthodox Jews to engage with stronger conviction and action against smartphone and image-based social network usage, particularly by children.

To be clear, I am not taking a position that is contrary to that of our communal leaders. Rav Yaakov Neuberger, a well known rabbi in the Modern Orthodox community in North America, someone who is deeply intertwined with it (and Bergen County in particular), someone who sent his children to schools in this community, and someone who serves as a resource to Modern Orthodox rabbis around the country, has read and enthusiastically supports the entirety of this article.

Whatever your initial views about the internet or social networks, one thing is clear—our community’s largely unfiltered use is directly contradicted by its other values. Premarital physical relationships are not allowed. Mainstream Modern Orthodox school requires all girls above a certain age to wear skirts to the knee, and mainstream Orthodox practice requires a mechitza at weddings to prevent men watching women dance.

These practices are rendered bizarrely hypocritical or ritualistic by our unfettered use of technology, and particularly social networks that cannot be filtered. Verywellfamily notes: “Launched in 2015, the Discover feature [on Snapchat] allows you to see content from popular media channels—many of which offer sexually oriented content.” A whistleblower recently divulged to Congress that “an internal Instagram presentation from March 2020 seen by The [Wall Street] Journal said that ‘when 32% of teenage girls felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse’.” As noted on ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “When ABC News scrolled through TikTok’s content, videos were found of teens talking about buying condoms, lying to their parents, sex with teachers, alcohol and drugs. The videos that rose to the top of the popular feeds featured buxom teens in bikinis and crop tops.”

That’s just social networks, heavily used by children in our community from the middle of elementary school, on top of the Web generally, where conservative estimates state that 13% of desktop and 20% of mobile searches are for pornography, and on top of the many other problems from such networks, including cyberbullying and endless distraction.

Academics are currently making furious progress on studying the extent of the psychological damage from image-based social networks on children, but perhaps there is even more danger to our community than in the secular world. When paired with our unique prohibitions on premarital physical relationships, allowing our children to inhabit these intensely sexual worlds may be even more likely to objectify girls and women, damage girls’ views of their bodies, and create unique frustrations and addictions.

It is to resolve this problem that I make four proposals. First, I call on all Modern Orthodox parents to install strong filters on all devices that children have access to. I will grant credence, arguendo, to the (dubious) claim that religiously and psychologically mature adults can go without a filter. But the idea that children can be “trusted” to be “good kids” on the Web or on the cesspool of image-based social networks is as silly as giving them an inappropriate magazine and “trusting” them to only read the articles. If anything, the Internet is far, far more dangerous and potentially life-altering and traumatizing for children, as an article in The New York Times focused on image-based networks recently noted in calling the Internet “one of the most dangerous toys for children.” Efforts at training on how to “safely” use the web are misplaced, as the deep psychological impulses underlying the pull of these networks are as strong as—or stronger than—alcohol and other dangerous substances we keep away from children.

Second, parents should reconsider whether to allow their children to use image-based social networks, including Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok. Many parents are inclined to be less worried due to their own social network experiences on text-based services such as Facebook or Twitter that at worst are a waste of time, and far more innocuous than image/video-based networks where physicality is far more important. Moreover, it is impossible to “filter” these networks—you must either allow them or not. Finally, the idea that we must allow such networks given how popular they are is belied by other aspects of our culture, such as our community’s lack of involvement in the universally celebrated, and essentially harmless, Halloween. The true problem is the intense and unique social peer pressure inherent to dense Orthodox communities, which can be peeled back with sustained focus.

Third, I call on Modern Orthodox communal organizations (such as synagogues and schools) and communal professionals (such as rabbis and female religious thought leaders) to stop using image-based networks and to treat internet issues with the urgency they deserve. Children will properly perceive as hypocritical any attempt to restrict their usage when Jewish communal leaders and institutions don’t. The analogy to the internet generally is not suitable, as the internet is a fundamental part of every aspect of modern living, while these networks exist for purposes antithetical to our values. The idea that Jewish institutions “must have” these networks is thus akin to arguments of a prior generation that people “must” be able to drive to synagogue on Shabbat.

Fourth, I call for donations for and involvement in the creation of a Bergen County affiliate of the TAG (Technology Awareness Group) organization (www.tag.org). The TAG organization has opened over 50 offices around the world to assist residents of Orthodox Jewish communities filter their electronic devices. TAG uniquely filters devices in a comprehensive way that secular filters cannot, such as that secular filters struggle with filtering Chromebooks or YouTube and helps screen iPhone devices to block apps that cannot be filtered. I have spoken extensively with TAG’s leadership, and they are excited about partnering with our community to create an office consistent with its values and standards. A Bergen County office would be run by Bergen County residents and staffed with someone appropriately suited to work with our diverse community. Given how much of the work is paid for by the mother organization, even first-year costs for opening an office are less than $50,000. Please contact me to get involved.

Modesty is not a ritual, it is a way of life that extends to new situations such as the Internet. With these steps, we can stay committed to modern Orthodox values, both those that honor serious engagement with the world and those that, at times, call for withdrawal from it.

Rabbi Yehuda Felsenthal is a yeshiva day school parent. He can be contacted via The Jewish Link at [email protected] For information on Bergen TAG, please email [email protected]

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