Last year, at a moment in my life when I needed it most, I stumbled upon a forgotten collection of personal home videos. It took me several days to obtain the obsolete, though necessary, hardware to review the many recorded hours of our family’s history. The delightful images and joyful sounds (albeit analog) immediately transported me back in time, magically returning me to a distant place of relative calm and serenity.
The unanticipated recovery of these long-lost videos, recorded over 20 years ago, triggered a rush of memories and emotions. For the most part, these nostalgic feelings were unremarkably pleasant. As I continued to indulge in the joyful consumption of my newly discovered 8mm treasure trove, I could not shake the feeling that something quite significant was noticeably absent from the many recorded scenes of my past. At first, I was unable to accurately identify what exactly it was that was so apparently missing.I could not name it and I could not place it, yet it was absolutely evident that something was missing in every video.
And then came the moment when it became so abundantly clear. Of course! Devices with screens were nowhere to be found in any recorded event. For several hours, I found myself transported back in time to a world that seemed so profoundly different from the one I currently occupy. Children playing in the yard and in the park, their curious eyes fixated on the beautiful world around them. Brothers and sisters interacting with one another (not always so peacefully), employing a full range of skills, typical of natural sibling engagement. Family gatherings and multigenerational get-togethers, occupied by individuals who seemed genuinely interested in reacquainting with family and friends. And the many, many eyes. Individuals young and old were visually engaged with the world around them, looking up and looking at one another, rather than sitting, standing or walking unnaturally and awkwardly with their eyes gazing downward and their necks locked at 35 degree angles.
There have been countless efforts to warn the public of the many dangers posed by unhealthy use of the internet, smartphones, social media, and the many ubiquitous features of modern technology. This is not the time nor the place to spotlight the numerous areas of documented risk. At least for the moment, I will spare you yet another lecture, however important such discussions may be, explicating the multitude of hazards associated with excessive use of technology, including addictions, exposure to pornography, online gaming, sports betting, cyberbullying, increased incidence of mental illness, and more.
Instead, I prefer to redirect our collective attention in an attempt to observe what is all too often missing from our lives; a healthy and sustainable supply of genuine human connectivity. In my opinion, it is this consequence of the excessive and incautious use of technology, more than anything else, that poses the single greatest risk to ourselves, our families and our community. Given the multitude of risks and challenges associated with the unguarded use of technology, it may seem surprising to focus on the absence of that which may seem to be more of a luxury than a basic human necessity. Allow me, if you will, a moment to plead my case.
From the moment of birth (if not beforehand), a newborn is primed to recognize and respond to the stimulus of a human face. Research has demonstrated that infants actively seek this connection, instinctively scanning their surroundings in an effort to lock gazes with the attuned eyes of another (typically, the mother). Over the course of a child’s development, through and including the period of adolescence, the innate need for this type of connection must be sufficiently met and nurtured in order to promote healthy socio-emotional development. If this need is not met and a child’s bids for attention go repeatedly unrecognized, his emotional development will become stunted and his capacity to form healthy secure relationships in the future will become severely compromised.
Please consider taking several moments to watch the following clip (yes, on YouTube, haha), featuring a 1996 demonstration of the “Still Face” experiment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeHcsFqK7So. Despite having watched this numerous times, I am unceasingly fascinated by this demonstration and equally horrified when I consider its implication for an entire generation of children who are constantly forced to compete for attention and connection. At a certain point, as we have each observed many times over, children inevitably adapt to a world that is deficient in the requisite supply of human attunement by themselves retreating and finding shelter in the “safety” of their own screens. This cycle, easily observable by all, is alarmingly pervasive and profoundly destructive.
My friends, some of you know me, others do not. I am not an alarmist by nature. It is not my style to scream from the hilltops, warning the ignorant masses of impending doom and gloom. All I can do is share my observations and the trends that I have witnessed over more than 20 years within my home, my classroom, my shul and my community.
Everywhere I turn, relationships are compromised and strained. Children are deeply craving connection with their parents and parents are painfully frustrated by what often appears to be mindless disinterest on the part of their children. Marriages are suffocating, as husbands and wives repeatedly resort to expressing their deepest feelings by casually selecting from a paltry sample of empty and unsophisticated emojis. On a societal level, we are bearing witness to a variety of devastating trends, from the complete breakdown and seeming near-extinction of civil political discourse to the complete dismantlement of the traditional family. Everywhere we turn, we are overwhelmed with a preponderance of evidence that reflects the fulfillment of Paul Simon’s prophetic words, “And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more; people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening...”
As a community, we must think thoughtfully and creatively as to how we can restore and protect healthy relationships, the essential building blocks of productive societies, functional families and individual fulfillment. We must do so by first acknowledging and accepting the technologically advanced world in which we live. If we attempt to ignore the realities of our world or introduce community-wide bans, we only exacerbate problems, rather than successfully manage them. Only after we have acknowledged the complicated and potentially frightening consequences of a technologically sophisticated world, can we effectively develop communal norms which encourage healthier methods for integration of technology while simultaneously promoting emotional well-being and healthy relationship building.
I am especially proud that our community has embarked upon a collaborative effort, first introduced last week: Living Connected: A Bergen County School-Shul Tech Initiative. Personally, I am hopeful and optimistic that meaningful and lasting change can be successfully implemented, but only if we address these challenges collectively, as one community. The technological advancements of the past generation have united billions of people, enabling individuals across the globe to communicate, collaborate, share and discuss. As we know all too well, this modern-day miracle has introduced global challenges of epic proportions. But introducing meaningful reform and lasting change can only succeed if we harness those very same forces and work together jointly and collaboratively.
And so, in the spirit of promoting communal initiatives, I conclude with a proposal which, depending on who you are, may seem either excessive and bold or weak and insufficient. Perhaps each one of us, as part of a community-wide effort, can elect to commit to one of the following:
No screens in the home, every evening, for a set period of time. You decide when and for what duration of time. Most importantly, though, this time should be dedicated for intentional and unobstructed human connection.
Grandparents establish a no-screen policy when visiting with grandchildren. Again, you determine the particulars and the parameters. But together, let us commit to the objective.
When someone is speaking with you and seeking your time, advice or attention, do not disrupt that moment by looking at your phone. Commit to creating new habits and protocols when standing face-to-face with another individual.
The navi Malachi prophesied a most glorious vision, to be fulfilled during the days preceding the coming of Moshiach. "והשיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם." Eliyahu HaNavi will lead a generation to reclaim and restore relationships that have become strained or impaired. The prophet foresees a transformational movement that inspires reconciliation between parents and their children and between children and their parents. May we be inspired as a community to initiate this effort, laying the groundwork for Eliyahu HaNavi, as we work together to secure our connections.
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, a licensed social worker, is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck and the director of professional rabbinics at RIETS.