The Social Media Revolution: What Does It Mean for Our Children?

by | in Education

Shlomo Hamelech teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun.

This phrase comes to mind when contemplating the ease of mass communication facilitated by social media. Centuries ago people similarly grappled with the advent of the printing press. On the one hand, the printing press led to the easy dissemination of books and pamphlets. This obviously was a great boon for the spread of both talmud Torah and general knowledge. However, this was threatening as well. Dissemination of ideas was no longer monopolized by the few who controlled the flow of information. Anyone with a printing press could get his ideas out to thousands. Copyists were no longer the gatekeepers of books, deciding what was worth sharing. Many printed works spread dubious ideas or challenged the authority of those in power. Some historians even cite the printing press as one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation, which ended the hegemony of the Catholic Church.

The world of social media represents a similar challenge, but on a far greater scale. While the printing press allowed anyone with financial means to spread his ideas, it was still limited to the upper echelons of society. Those who were not well financed or did not have sponsorship could not afford to print their works. There were still gatekeepers to the spread of ideas, even though the gates had been opened some. With the rise of social media, the gates have been breached. Anyone with a computer or smartphone and “followers” or “friends” on a social network can easily spread his ideas— both good and bad, worthwhile and vapid—to an audience of thousands. This is especially frightening for parents trying to navigate the digital world their children inhabit.

How accepting should we be of our children’s involvement with this new technology? This is a difficult question. In the secular world, a number of different approaches have developed. On one side of the spectrum there are experts who believe that we would be better off without it. One commonly cited proponent of this approach is Nicholas Carr, who argues in his book The Shallows that the Internet has encouraged superficial reading and thinking. When one can Google just about everything, who has the time to read deeply and contemplate anything? Similarly, many claim that social media platforms like Facebook rarely spawn deep conversations and often seem to dwell on inanities.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who point to the great potential of social media. The author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky is a leading advocate for this approach, describing what he calls a “cognitive surplus” where ordinary people are able to connect with others using social media to accomplish good on a scale that was only possible in the past for people in positions of power or of significant financial means. (Think of the way social media enable us to disseminate the names of sick people, for example, who need our prayers.)

For parents to determine their position vis-à-vis social media, they must first understand them. With that in mind, here is a brief overview of the most common social media tools used today.

Facebook—the social media platform of choice for most adolescents, with 80 percent of teens on Facebook according to a recent estimate from the Pew Research Center (“Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites,” http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Teens-and-social-media.aspx).

On Facebook one accumulates “friends” with whom he shares status updates containing text, links, pictures or videos. These appear on the user’s “wall” or timeline. One can limit status updates to select people and not all friends. An individual can post text, photos or links to his friend’s wall or timeline, with or without prior approval from his friend. One can also set up a Facebook group to communicate with people who are not necessarily his or her friend on Facebook, create an event and an organization, business or famous personality can set up a Facebook page to communicate with fans who “like” the page.

Twitter—the second most common social media platform, Twitter is much less popular than Facebook among  teens but has doubled its teen users in the last three years to 16 percent of teens (“Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites”). Twitter users send public messages, called “tweets,” using 140 characters or fewer. Users can mark their accounts as private for only select people to see, but most tweets are public so that anyone can find them. On Twitter a person accumulates “followers” who subscribe to his tweets. Tweets can then be “re-tweeted” or shared by followers, so one never really knows where his tweets may end up.

One caveat is in order: the world of social media is constantly changing. Currently Facebook and Twitter are the two most popular social media platforms. However, many experts argue that these are already being supplemented and perhaps even supplanted by mobile tools designed for smartphones, such as the Instagram photo sharing app which was recently purchased by Facebook and currently has over 50 million users, many of them teenagers. This is one more reason why parents need to constantly stay informed, up-to-date and vigilant in their quest to help their children navigate this new digital world.

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the director of educational technology at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey. He is also an online instructor for the Mofet Institute in Israel and has given technology workshops throughout North America, Israel and most recently South Africa.

Jewish Action asked educators representing yeshivot across the Orthodox spectrum to respond to the following questions regarding social media: Do you encourage students to be on Facebook and Twitter? What is your view of technology in general? Are social media different from other forms of new media? If you encourage the use of social media, do you offer students any guidelines? Are there any concerns you discuss with students related to their use of social media?

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein
In Pirkei Avos (2:1), Rebbi offers sage advice which, although seemingly obvious and the mantra of any businessman, bears reiteration: “Hevei mechasheiv hefseid mitzvah keneged secharah, When determining the merit of any act, calculate the gains versus the losses.” Many areas of life are cloaked in gray, beneath which both the risks and benefits are concealed. Therefore, to avoid harm’s way, one needs to make an honest assessment.

“Social media,” a relatively new expression, denotes a variety of methods used to connect people via the Internet. The attractions of social media include the sharing of images, ideas and opinions, open communication—even “networking”—and more among individuals who normally would not be linked. It contributes to what is referred to in educational philosophy as “cognitive perspective,” or a well-rounded worldview. What’s wrong with that?

Consider a telling comment from the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 65:1). Among their descriptions of Eisav, our sages write: “Eisav is likened unto the swine, which raises its hooves to say, ‘See that I am clean!’” Much of what seriously threatens our well being—symbolized by Eisav—is innately deceptive, says the Midrash. As part of the manner in which the Creator fashioned all of existence, the swine was crafted as a paradigm of something that appears measurably “kosher”—after all, it has split hooves—but is decidedly not.

Pondering potential perils, then, becomes reduced to the issue of whether or not we can see beyond externals. That acid test needs to be applied to many areas of life, including social media. The “cognitive perspective” that might be achieved is the proverbial “split hoof” that can sneakily promote broad acceptance and broad use. But user, beware! Assess whether something that looks kosher really is.

When embarking upon an honest deliberation, consider the aspects of social media that impact its users. Consider the enormous time wastage, for instance. Recent statistics indicate that fully 80 percent of online teens use social media,1 with 22 percent of North American adolescents accessing their favorite social media sites at least ten times daily.2 Teenagers have on average about 265 “friends”3 with whom they connect regularly. I wonder if an average youth needs that much social exposure and if he or she can handle it.

Are we ready to jeopardize our modesty, the hallmark of Am Yisrael?

Then consider who these social contacts are. Can a youngster vouch for the moral integrity of all his 265 claimed “friends?” How often we hear stories of depraved individuals—otherwise known as predators—infiltrating the lives of unassuming and innocent youngsters with disastrous results. Even if disaster of an open and obvious nature does not strike, parents would be foolish to assume that all “relationships” pursued through social networking are healthy.

Twitter, with over 465 million accounts worldwide and nearly a half million new accounts added daily,4 has almost 340 million uncontrolled messages, “tweets,” being sent each day.5 That’s an awful lot of “cognitive perspective” if you ask me.

What about the images uploaded and available through social media? There are 250 million photographs posted every day through Facebook alone.6 In today’s permissive society, it is tantamount to self-inflicted blindness for parents to imagine that all of what is enticingly available through social media is suitable for young eyes—or older eyes for that matter. Are we ready to jeopardize our modesty, the hallmark of Am Yisrael?

There’s more. A recent survey conducted at Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse revealed a link between teen use of social media and substance abuse. It was shown that teens who use social media sites are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol and twice as likely to use marijuana than those who do not use social media. 7

If that’s not enough, consider another social ill that emerged from social media: cyberbullying. With the ability to hide behind the veil of anonymity, youngsters and adults alike post the most brazen, cruel and hurtful comments about others. The defamation, the insults and the pain that are disseminated in blogs have caused untold psychological emotional damage in targeted victims.

Indeed the issue of anonymity has opened the doors to a rash of attacks against that which is most sacred in our heritage: kavod haTorah, the reverence for Torah leaders that is a cornerstone of our credo. The destructiveness promoted by these cowardly and anonymous attacks threatens to produce a generation of severely jaded Jews for whom Torah leadership is a non-entity.

For me, as pressing as this calculation is, so is it a simple one. It ends with the clear conclusion: “yatza secharo b’hefseido,” the losses far outweigh any possible benefits.

Notes:
1. Pew Internet, “Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites,” http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Teens-and-social-media.aspx (accessed June 26, 2012).

2. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, Kathleen Clarke Pearson and Council on Communications and Media, “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families,” Pediatrics 127 (2011): 800, doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-0054.

3. Ericsson Corporate Public & Media Relations, “Talking, Texting, Poking and Dating,”  http://www.ericsson.com/res/docs/2012/howteenagersareusingtechnologyintheirsociallives.pdf (accessed June 26, 2012).

4. “48 Significant Social Media Facts, Figures and Statistics Plus 7 Infographics,” Business 2 Community, http://www.business2community.com/social-media/48-significant-social-media-facts-figures-and-statistics-plus-7-infographics-0167573.

5. Twitter Blog, posted on March 21, 2012, http://blog.twitter.com/2012/03/twitter-turns-six.html.

6. “48 Significant Social Media Facts.”

7. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVI: Teens and Parents,  http://www.casacolumbia.org/templates/NewsRoom.aspx?articleid=648&zoneid=51 (accessed June 26, 2012).

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein is the director of publications and communications at Torah Umesorah.

Rabbi Dov Emerson
The speed at which our world is changing is truly unprecedented. I think back, not to my adolescence in the halcyon days of dial-up Internet and AOL, but to less than a decade ago—before iPhones, Twitter and Facebook even existed. Consider the fact that about 75 percent of Apple’s $108 billion revenue in 2011 came from products that were completely nonexistent just five years ago.1 The world is being re-shaped at a mind-boggling pace.

To this generation, popularly referred to as digital natives, “the smartphone, the Internet, and everything technological are not ‘tools’ at all; they simply are. Just as we don’t think about the existence of air, they don’t question the existence of technology and media. They expect technology to be there, and they expect it to do whatever they want it to do.” 2 This seismic shift presents a host of challenges and opportunities for educators and parents.

When a five-year-old can seamlessly navigate through an endless array of iPad apps, we may feel inadequately equipped to guide him. What exactly can we teach these little tech ninjas?

However, it is vital that we appreciate the fundamental difference between being tech-proficient (which our children most certainly are) and being tech-responsible, a skill that entails wisdom and maturity. It is in the latter that we, as role models, have much to contribute.

Without a strong relationship with our children and/or students, our guidance will have little, if any, impact. In order to nourish this relationship, we must become conscious and interested in the way our connected kids live their digital lives.

Social media are here to stay, and are where our youth are spending much of their time. Shunning Facebook as a waste of time will only serve to sabotage the relationship we wish to establish and enrich. Instead, try openly asking a child what he or she perceives to be the risks and rewards of social media. Our openness and interest will undoubtedly open the doorway to healthy communication.

Kids often gravely underestimate the toll that their digital conduct can take on their reputations. A simple review of the day’s news will demonstrate how difficult it is for adults to master the art of reputation management. Imagine how much more difficult it is for adolescents! We need to impress upon our children that “the digital decisions they make today will stay with them, and the rest of cyberspace, forever.”3 We need to impress upon our children that just as their reputations can suffer when they share a vulgar picture, it can be enhanced when they post a picture or comment that reflects their intelligence and interests. The point that has to be driven home is that social media are tools. They can be used for both positive and negative, and the user has the power to determine what type of impact they are going to create.

We must think deeply about how we can integrate technology and social media into our students’ educational experiences. This is not just about having the latest whiz bang technology in the classroom or appearing hip and relevant in the eyes of our students. When we use technology in the classroom, it can be an incredibly important teaching experience because we are modeling proper usage for our students. When we engage our students on cyber-turf, we can subtly guide them away from put downs and snap judgments that are all too often the hallmark of unsupervised online interactions and shift their gears toward more reflective and thoughtful contributions.

Social media and online communication also give our students a new avenue through which to express themselves creatively. At DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, New York, we ran three concurrent trips to Boston with mostly different itineraries for the ninth, tenth and eleventh grades. In the weeks leading up to the trip, we encouraged students to enter contests we designed by tweeting with the hashtag “#DRSBoston.” (A hashtag is a tag used to categorize tweets according to topics.) We marveled at how social media united students across all grades in ways that were previously inconceivable. Additionally, some of the quietest students became vocal participants on the Twitter feed. Imagine the boost in self-esteem for the otherwise shy student who can now be recognized for his or her contribution in the online arena.

Social media nurture a culture of sharing and collaboration. All too often, adults and children alike feel as though they have little to offer in a conversation. When we use social media and other online collaborative tools in the school environment, we can teach our students that they have valuable perspectives to share. We can work to instill in our students the notion that something may be “obvious to you,” but “amazing to others.”4 Even if the content is not inherently educational, our engagement and excitement at the creativity our students display with, say, a wonderful Instagram photo, encourage them to further explore their creativity and strengthen their voices.

Yes, these are challenging times when we constantly struggle to gain our footing before the next app is released. We must be vigilant in protecting our children from the illicit ills of the Internet. We must, by example, teach our children that there are times when it is OK, even necessary, to put the phone and laptop down. But, in what is perhaps a uniquely twenty-first-century twist on the Torah’s directive to “teach a child according to his way,”5 we must also embrace this iGeneration and take advantage of the many opportunities to teach our children through the very media they so adoringly absorb.

Notes:
1. “Apple Price Target: $790 Per Share,” Seeking Alpha, http://seekingalpha.com/article/359881-apple-price-target-790-per-share.

2.  “Teaching the iGeneration,” ASCD, http://www.ascd.org/publications/educationalleadership/feb11/vol68/num05/Teaching-the-iGeneration.aspx.

3. Diana Graber, “Your Digital Footprint,” Safe Keeping Blog, May 14, 2012, http://www.ikeepsafe.org/digital-citizenship-2/your-digital-footprint/.

4.  Derek Sivers, “Obvious to you. Amazing to others,” Derek Sivers, November 21, 2010, http://sivers.org/obvious.

5. Proverbs 22:6

Rabbi Dov Emerson is an assistant principal at the DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys, part of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB), in Woodmere, New York. He is one of the founders of #jedchat, a weekly Twitter chat for Jewish educators, and is the administrator of YU 2.0, an online community  for Jewish educators interested in educational technology. Rabbi Emerson was recently honored as a member of the New York Jewish Week’s 2012 “36 Under 36” list.

To hear an interview with Rabbi Dov Emerson, visit http://www.ou.org/life/parenting/if-internet-here-stay-where-does-that-put-us-dov-emerson-stephen-savitsky/ .

Dr. Tzipora Meier
The students at The Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls on Long Island, New York, whip out their smartphones as soon as the lunch bell rings, and sometimes earlier when they are on their breaks. They are calling, texting, connecting to the Internet. They know that they are not permitted to use their phones during class, and before tests they must deposit their phones on the teacher’s desk. But everyone—teachers and students alike—is seconds away from outside communication.

Technology offers powerful tools, which we use with pride to help reach our students. Could we reach students without technology? Of course, but there is no doubt that technology adds sophistication and breadth to our lessons and speed and convenience to our communications. And since we feel we must educate our students “ba’asher hu sham,” where they are at, we feel we must understand the technology and social media to understand our students.

Some of our students use social media; a sizeable number do not. We do not promote it, but with our awareness comes the responsibility to help our students understand the power of these forms of communication. We surely understand the potentially negative impact that technology, and specifically social networking, can have on our children and we have taken steps to try to address this. A few years ago Head of School Mrs. Helen Spirn, along with Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky, menahel of DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, New York, very wisely instituted an Internet safety awareness program for freshmen and their parents. The program features speakers including Philip Rosenthal, a known computer and Internet safety expert, and law enforcement officers who teach students to use the Internet and social media sites responsibly. At the same time, the program informs parents of their daughters’ online involvement and the dangers therein.

Before our students apply to seminaries in Israel as well as to colleges, Mrs. Spirn suggests that if they have a Facebook profile, they make sure it represents who they are in a positive light. Despite these precautions, a conversation of concern often takes place at faculty meetings. Do our students have shorter attention spans than they did ten years ago? Is it true that they no longer enjoy reading, that they need instant gratification? What happens to a student when she has “800 friends”? Are students thinking more about the next text they’ll send rather than the lesson in class? Is all this technology addictive?

There is a push and pull to technology. Our mesorah teaches us that Hashem spoke to Moshe panim el panim, face-to-face. The message here is that intimate contact is important. Chavruta learning, or collaborative learning, is a part of our yeshivah experience and although it can happen online, with people throughout the world, something is missing when limited to that medium. It is clear that we are just at the beginning of this technological revolution and more information, training and experience are necessary. We are committed to engage in this experiment, but as with all change, it is a struggle. We must use technology and enjoin our students to use technology to better their lives and to foster deep and critical thinking. “Ba’asher hu sham” is certainly true, but we must also be the guides to lead our students to higher moral, ethical and thinking lives.

Dr. Tzipora Meier is principal, grades 11-12, at The Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls on Long Island, New York, and a mentor in the Lookstein ELAI program.

 Dr. David Pelcovitz
A couple of years ago, I gave a talk on Jewish ethics and the Internet at the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. A reporter covering the event approached me just as the session ended and noted, in passing, that she had just posted her coverage a few seconds ago. To me, that instantaneousness encapsulates the true nature of social media.

One way in which technology has become harmful is the rise of what psychologists call the “online disinhibition effect.” In other words, it can breed insensitivity and callousness. I’ve seen this in my practice working with the Jewish community and with kids in particular.

When one is alone in a room and doesn’t see the other person to whom he is speaking, he loses perspective. It also becomes easier to come across as lacking empathy. It’s not uncommon for people who are really decent, caring individuals to act insensitive and even cruel online. For example, a couple of girls may be discussing online the way another girl looked at a party. What would have been an isolated catty remark heard by one or two people could, via social media, reach the girls in an entire grade and even beyond. A one-on-one critical remark about someone’s appearance could literally become a public event. That remark is no longer “just” lashon hara (gossip); it is halbanas pnei chaveiro berabbim (humiliating someone in public).

When comments are posted on a screen with no moderators, social exclusiveness, biting remarks and cutting attitudes can predominate. There’s also no reflection time. Online, you write something, hit the send button and it’s there forever.

Additionally, as a result of the social media explosion, our kids are missing out on social nuances.

A Pew Research Center study in 2010 showed that 75 percent of adolescents who have cell phones prefer texting to face-to-face interaction. That’s a sea change. And the value of face-to-face interaction should not be underestimated. Psychologists have noted that those engaged in face-to-face conversation have similar neurons lighting up in their brains. They are literally reflecting one another, since they are experiencing the same kind of emotions. In general, the lack of face-to-face interaction results in a lower level of empathy, something that has begun to characterize this generation.

It is important to teach our children how to use technology responsibly, which includes not sending e-mails or texts when one is angry. Kids often get into trouble because of comments they made which they later regret. The impersonal nature of electronic communication enables kids to write things they would never actually say in real life. A parent should train his child to always ask himself before sending an e-mail or text: Is this really what I want to say? Let me see if I still want to send the e-mail or text tomorrow.

Sometimes a principal or school psychologist will tell me that she had to suspend a student because of a comment. There have been students who have had their acceptances to seminaries or yeshivot withdrawn because of a post on Facebook—pictures showing them drinking beer at a party, or hanging out with members of the opposite sex in a way that doesn’t sit well with the school administrations or parent bodies. Oftentimes students who are planning on attending the same yeshivah or seminary in Israel will “friend” each other on Facebook months in advance of the school year. A parent might see her child’s friend’s Facebook page and say, “The school let that kid in? Look what she’s doing!” The parent might call the head of the seminary and threaten not to send her child if such kids are accepted into the school.

On the other hand, social media can be an excellent vehicle for making positive connections. My mother-in-law, who’s almost ninety, has ongoing Scrabble games on Facebook with her children and even her grandchildren and great-grandchildren who live all over the world. My brother-in-law gave her an iPad and she spends a lot of time connecting with her family in a way she wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

Social media can also foster a broad sense of community and support. It is very inspiring to see Jews around the world galvanize support for a fellow Jew going through a tough time by creating a Facebook group or Tehillim event for that person.

The best way to approach technology is to view it not as a threat, but as a challenge. I think we all believe in inoculation over isolation, but inoculation takes work. This idea is best illustrated by the parable of the frog and the beaker. If one takes a frog and places it into a beaker of boiling water, it will jump out and survive. If one takes the same frog and places it into a beaker of room-temperature water on a fire and slowly brings the water to boil, the frog will not realize it is in mortal danger and will eventually boil to death. Similarly, we need to be cognizant of the fact that social media and the Internet in general can pose significant harm if we do not take precautions. Inoculation means learning how to regulate the temperature, how to regulate our children’s online environment.

Cyberbullying is a significant issue. A “friend” of one of my kids accessed his Facebook account. He acted as if he were my child and made disparaging remarks about him. That was a lesson in not sharing passwords and not leaving Facebook without signing out.

It is also critical that parents be good role models in this area. If they are checking their cell phones and reviewing their texts when they’re with their kids, their kids notice it and feel the lack of attention. Many times par ents don’t even realize the message they are conveying. When they stop focusing on their children to respond to a new e-mail, what are they telling their children?

Parents and educators must also use social media in a way that respects boundaries. Teachers, for example, should not become their students’ friends. I have been involved in situations where boundaries were blurred in very unhealthy ways. While a teacher could certainly post homework online or create a site to answer questions or offer explanations on assignments, I would not encourage her to maintain a personal Facebook page that students could access. That’s letting kids into one’s personal life in a way that could undermine one’s authority. Yeshivot should provide guidelines for teachers in this area.

Young people or even adults who want to improve their work productivity might consider testing themselves to see whether they work better multi- or uni-tasking. Some might find that they thrive when working on a few things at once. But an honest self-assessment might reveal that one gets more work done efficiently—with more focus and less stress—when the cell phone and computer are turned off. From what I understand, companies such as Google now have technology-free periods during the day, a concession to the fact that people are more efficient when they are not distracted.

The Kaiser Family Foundation did a study in 2010 that showed that when parents set limits, children spend nearly three hours less with media overall than those with no rules. Rules and restrictions lead to more responsible use of the Internet in general.

Parents should speak to their kids about the need for rules, but do it in a way that makes sense to the child. If kids feel that rules are arbitrary, they will develop “parent deafness.”

A few years ago, Debbie Fox, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of Aleinu Marriage Services in Los Angeles, conducted a fascinating study on Internet usage by interviewing students in a Modern Orthodox high school. She asked the students what type of restrictions they anticipate having for their own children’s Internet usage. More than half the respondents said they planned on being stricter than their own parents.

When I speak to teenage audiences, I sometimes ask how many of them have clear rules restricting their Internet usage at home. Most of the kids do not raise their hands. Then, when I ask how many live in a home where their parents perceive there to be such rules, almost everyone in the room raises their hands. I think it is obvious that kids need more clarity from their parents regarding rules and guidelines for Internet usage.

But if the rules are too lenient or too strict, they won’t work. Also, it is very important that parents have good relationships with their kids. If rules are set but are not within the framework of a relationship, they will not work. I often sum it up this way: “Rules without a relationship equals rebellion.”

If a child gets into trouble on the Internet, such as getting pulled into pornography or getting bullied by others online, he has to know that when he tells his parents, they aren’t going to respond with anger or “I told you so.” Kids have to know that they can go to their parents with anything. There needs to be dialogue and collaboration between the generations. That’s probably the most important factor.

Special thanks to Binyamin Ehrenkranz for interviewing Dr. David Pelcovitz and preparing this article for publication. Dr.  Pelcovitz holds the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. He also teaches pastoral psychology courses at YU’s RIETS, and serves as special assistant to the president of Yeshiva University.

Dovid Teitelbaum
Since social networking is relatively new and most adults don’t understand it too well, they erroneously buy into the many “dangers” that are espoused by the media. Therefore, I would like to begin by first defining social media. Despite what most people may think, social media are not primarily about creating new friends or meeting new people. They are amazing tools to help friends and family keep in touch.

I am the director of a camp in Israel for teens from across the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel. I attended this camp as a child, and I remember how on the last day of camp, as we sat in the airport, we all felt incredibly happy and fulfilled—but we also felt a sense of loss. As we said our goodbyes to our new friends, we knew deep down that our friendships wouldn’t last and that we wouldn’t keep in touch for long. We convinced each other that we would, and so we diligently took one another’s phone numbers and addresses because in our hearts we really did want to stay in touch.

One click of the “like” button from a counselor can accomplish way more than any mussar shmuz!

The world was just too big back then, and as much as we tried to stay in touch, it just never worked out. We wrote letters, but that never lasted long. Sometimes we received phone calls from camp friends on erev Rosh Hashanah and maybe even a birthday card with a camp photo inside. If we were lucky, by mid-year we still remembered all of our bunkmates’ names.

Today that has all changed, thanks to the Internet and social media. My campers can stay in touch through e-mail, Facebook and Skype. The day after camp, photos get uploaded to Facebook. Friends are tagged and comments are posted. Memories are shared and relationships are strengthened. Anyone who says these friendships are not the same because they are maintained over the Internet and therefore not “real” has never engaged in such a relationship himself. The bonds these campers form and maintain online are very real.

More importantly, years ago there was no way of maintaining the emotional and spiritual high we all experienced after an intense summer in Eretz Yisrael. Everyone knows that a camp counselor can be one of the most influential figures in a child’s life, but in the past that relationship was limited to a few weeks each summer. Today, that doesn’t have to be the case. A counselor can stay in touch with his campers in a meaningful, consistent way. Just by looking at the statuses and photos of their campers, counselors can see how each one is progressing throughout the year. If he notices that a camper is having difficulties or may be heading in the wrong direction, he can get involved. Adults can have a huge influence on kids via social networking. One click of the “like” button from a counselor can accomplish way more than any mussar shmuz!

But the connection doesn’t stop online: social networking can facilitate interaction when teens travel to friends for Shabbat and get together for reunions throughout the year. What is most puzzling is that these tremendously positive interactions between friends were encouraged a generation ago but today are ridiculed by many educators and parents.

Of course teens need to be taught to use social media in moderation and with certain limitations. Our camp, for example, created a private Facebook group just for girls so that there is no concern about private photos getting out to the public. In my mind, discouraging social media is counter-productive. As one camper told me, “They’re not banning cell phones and Facebook, they’re banning my friends.” We may not see it that way, but that’s the way it comes across to teens. And as educators and parents, we must always be cognizant of how our messages come across to teens.

Dovid Teitelbaum is the director of  Camp Sdei Chemed International.

Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe
I’ll be honest. The request to write an article about the effects of social media filled me with trepidation. If you’ll excuse the pun, anything “remotely” connected today with technology, the Internet and the plethora of electronic devices that capture our society’s collective imagination is the radioactive theme of our day, and the fallout has been pretty severe. The issues surrounding the advantages and disadvantages of our increased reliance on broadband impact so profoundly upon our frum community that addressing them is an area in which giants fear to tread. Perhaps the rest of us Lilliputians would be better advised to follow suit.

To put my perspective into perspective, however, a few particulars must be shared. First, I use the Internet regularly and I am something of an information junkie. In fact, I’ll admit that while sitting at the recent Internet Asifa, my curiosity got the best of me and I felt compelled to Google just how many seats there are in Citi Field and Arthur Ashe Stadium. But before you think I’ve turned to the dark side, I would like to point out that I personally heard the venerated Lakewood Mashgiach Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon say that the Internet is not the enemy—the yetzer hara is. Like any other innovation to which we have been introduced throughout our history, we need to find ways to adapt the Internet to our needs, to be used in manners consistent with our Torah lives, rather than diving in headfirst under the guise of progress and adaptation to modern times. That said, anybody waiting for this fad to pass is going to be waiting a long time. Whatever way we try to maintain some healthy boundaries, this technology will inexorably become part of almost everyone’s life. The question will ultimately be one of extent and degree of dependency.

Virtually all issues that arise through Internet use increase exponentially when it comes to social media. Certain aspects surrounding the use of social media distinguish them from other forms of communication and raise concerns beyond that which is relevant to general Internet use. There are long lists of pros and cons for their use, which anyone can research. I, however, would like to focus on a few issues specifically pertinent to Torah Jews. Personally, the potential effects of social media have been sufficient to keep me away from “booking my face” and associating my communications with the production of avian vocalizations (tweeting, for the obtuse).

Firstly, as I’m sure many of the contributors to this symposium have pointed out, the amount of squandered time spent on social media sites is staggering. While it may be very convenient to be able to be in contact with almost anyone all of the time, it behooves us to consider how much of this contact is truly important, or even relevant. After all, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey himself thought the title perfect because it reflected “a short burst of inconsequential information.” Is this something to which we should aspire?

The very nature of Internet-based instantaneous worldwide distribution of information gives almost anyone with two index fingers an authoritative viewpoint. It is considered fashionable to have one’s own blog, regardless of the drivel contained therein. It is reminiscent of the old joke that everyone is an expert in the areas of religion, education and politics since they were raised in some faith, they went to school and they have the ability to vote. No less a personage than Rabbi Yisroel Salanter is reputed to have stated, “Not everything one thinks should be said. Not everything one says should be written down. Not everything written down should be published.” Our instantaneous publication ability has all but made this point moot in our cyberworld. Suddenly, we can all be experts, we can all be publishers. While the world of academia produces its own share of refuse, at least peer review culls some of the ridiculous being mistaken for the sublime.

My concerns are the same as they would be with any other kind of social interaction; you want your children to be around people who would add value to their lives and not potentially be a negative influence.

This leads to an issue which is actually a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the anonymity that social media communication affords allows anyone to express his or her ideas about anything without repercussions. While in theory this seems like a virtuous proposal, the reality is that boundaries that exist in face-to-face communication come tumbling down and characters are assassinated without ever seeing it coming. There is clear evidence that this factor has also lured many fine people into entering inappropriate relationships. Certain things would never be said or written if people recognized one another. The anonymity of the Internet has often led to the blurring of propriety and, to be frank, decency. The results have been disastrous. I personally know of marriages that have imploded and families ripped apart because individuals have not recognized appropriate boundaries.

Finally, I personally am concerned that social media and even e-mail have greatly affected how we communicate and interact. How many real, live, uniquely human interactions have been abandoned in favor of connecting technologically? I have no doubt that there has been a significant decline in people’s ability to interact with one another in the real world. Everyone just seems so distracted. Who would have ever thought people could walk absentmindedly into mall fountains? Can it really be that Fort Lee, New Jersey actually had to enact a law against texting while walking to ensure successful navigation? Are we that far gone? Apparently. Perhaps the best last word on this issue can be expressed in the words of the most famous psychedelic advocate of the 60s Timothy Leary. During his final decade, he proclaimed that the “personal computer is the LSD of the 1990s”—“turn on, boot up, jack in” reworked his original mantra of  “turn on, tune in, drop out” to suggest joining the cyberdelic counterculture. Cyberdelic indeed.

I am pretty certain that I was asked to write this article because I am an educator, fortunate to work with young men and oversee their development. Every concern I mentioned above applies to them. Every one also applies to adults. True, adolescents are notorious for making impulsive and just plain bad decisions. However, the examples we set make a huge difference. Once, when two totally exasperated parents were sitting in my office decrying their son’s inappropriate viewing habits, the father tipped his hand when he exclaimed in frustration, “What business does he have watching these things at his age?” I simply replied, “Do you follow a different Shulchan Aruch than he does?”

Chazal tell us “Al ta’amin b’atzmecha ad yom moscha, Don’t be certain about yourself until the day of your death.” Nobody has any assurances that he is immune and impervious to negative influences. We have a holy mission to raise a generation that will live their lives consistent with Torah values, and it behooves us to do the same for ourselves. I don’t have all the answers or know exactly where to draw the line. We are just beginning to see the effects, and it is clear that they have the potential to be devastating. We need to decide if it’s worth the risks.

Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, Ph.D. is the menahel of Mesivta Ateres Yaakov, a mesivta high school and yeshivah gedolah, located in Lawrence, New York. Rabbi Yaffe holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is licensed to practice in the State of New York.

To hear an interview with Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, visit http://www.ou.org/life/parenting/twitter-creator-calls-short-burst-inconsequential-information-stephen-savitsky/.

How do technology and social media affect young people during their “year in Israel”? What are the challenges facing educators in Israel when kids are so wired up?

Rabbi Moshe Benovitz
Some twenty years ago, the most popular guy in the post-high school Israel yeshivah I attended was the fellow whose father faxed him box scores from the New York Times every other Tuesday. True, there was one fanatical football follower who would occasionally spend an hour or two listening to his brother’s live play-by-play over the old pay phone late on Sunday nights. But for most of us, Sunday’s game results would be partially reported sometime Monday afternoon. Important information and breaking news regarding life plans were transmitted by phone during weekly brief conversations, or more likely by handwritten letters (occasionally rerouted through Central American countries). Those much-anticipated sports section faxes?  They were pored over as if they had been recently excavated from the Cairo Geniza. They gave any sports addict a much-needed fix, but also served as an exceptionally rare portal back to a world that seemed very, very far away.

Today’s Israel experience is not quite the same. This has had some drastic implications for the learning and growth experiences of students spending a post-high school year learning. The combination of a seven-second broadcast delay on network television and a Blackberry or iPhone in every hand half a globe away makes it no exaggeration to say that a home run in Pittsburgh can be cheered in Jerusalem before being watched in Manhattan.

Of course real-time sports results are not the extent of the new reality we are seeing. They are simply an indication of an ever-shrinking world where questions of connectivity and identity are being answered anew every day. On the simplest level, the new challenges relate to our students’ capacity to pay attention. Our modern-day yeshivah and seminary environments do not come close to providing a captive audience. Alternative sources of stimulation—intellectual or otherwise—are rarely more than an arm’s length away. Even during those precious moments (Shabbat?) where there is no direct competition from a tweet, ping or other vibration, teachers find that most students’ tech habits have seriously compromised their ability to focus, analyze and immerse themselves in traditional learning.

But arguably the more fundamental shift has taken place in a different aspect of student engagement. Never before has it been more relevant and pressing to address “How Will it Play in Peoria?” The world is no longer comprised of individual moments and areas. There are no classrooms that build an educational foundation one brick at a time. A Blackberry means that I am never completely here, there or anywhere. Our experiences are shared—vividly and often immediately. This means that our shiurim and discussions are being presented to a wider audience than it may seem, and are also being processed in a context very different from the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. There is little question that the early phenomenon of the “Year in Israel” was at least partially due to the geographic removal of the student from his comfort zone and home turf. The year was short on stereotypes (both of and by the student) and long on innovation and newness. Today a student can spend a year in Israel without a significant adjustment to his social circle, entertainment choices or cultural framework.

A good teacher must be part pedagogue and part sociologist to better understand the reality of his disciples. However, a flawed educator is too much a sociologist—excelling at identifying trends and tendencies within his class but failing to develop strategies to adequately cope with these new developments. Even worse, sometimes we allow these observations and insights to serve as excuses for failing to educate properly. Let us not fall into that trap.

Firstly, we need not cower from the threat of competing ideas or stimuli. Clearly the Torah world is being challenged to present our eternal teachings in a format and style that will appeal to a generation entrenched in a new reality. This is neither the first nor the last time such a challenge has been issued, and it is neither the first nor the last time that Torah will more than hold its own. We simply need educators who are up to the task of offering what no game, movie clip or instant message can deliver—the thrill and deep satisfaction of connecting to Torah on its most sublime level. Today there are fewer guarantees than ever. But the outlook is not hopelessly grim. Never before has it been more critical to have confidence in Chazal’s teaching, “I have created an evil inclination and I have created Torah as its antidote” (Kiddushin 30b).

Secondly, it is not sufficient to acknowledge the impact and power of these devices. We can and should embrace their potential and direct the momentum they generate toward Torah goals and ideals. For example, while sourcing and accountability are still significant flaws in Wikipedia and anonymous blog operations, modern students use their wireless worlds to augment skepticism and to reject dogma. While this sounds alarming, why must it be even the least bit negative? We can encourage our students to embrace information and vigorously pursue accuracy and veracity. Fact checking can become a learned skill, and technology can be harnessed in a way that makes it second nature. There are new opportunities for students to contribute to the discussion like never before. And there is a further advantage to this approach. “Please take out your iPhones” has a very different impact on a student than “If I see it, I take it away.” By finding opportunities to integrate technology into learning, students will automatically sense the beautiful blending of Torah and their cyber world. Instead of two spheres coexisting uneasily and warily orbiting one another, there is a valuable experience of synthesis between the two.

Finally, we must face this challenge with the unshakable resolve to inspire our students to dare to be different. What better opportunity could there be to discuss in real terms, with real implications, the unique Torah perspective on life? Our learning and mesorah offer invaluable definitions of the self and guides to proper study and communication. These perspectives surely advocate for a particular approach to new technology, and will at the very least indicate a need to limit some of the ubiquitousness of the World Wide Web. We should be proud to present that.

An ad for Apple products recently found its way into my inbox. Its tagline screamed, “Just What You Need to Do Just About Anything.” Well, not quite. Maybe it is what we need to do many things, but not at all helpful for more than a few others. And no one knows this better than this generation—the media and technology users. Our students need no studies to confirm their loneliness, nor charts or graphs to highlight their potential for far greater productivity. What they need is an alternative. And that is something that we have and should not hesitate to share.

Rabbi Moshe Benovitz is the longtime director of the NCSY Summer Kollel Program in Israel.

 To hear an interview with Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, visit http://www.ou.org/life/parenting/technology-social-media-affecting-year-israel-stephen-savitsky/

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2012.

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