When I was a kid, Gameboy and Nintendo were the hottest things you could have. My parents never bought those toys, so I had to make do with a Commodore 64 computer that took fifteen minutes to load, and when Ms. Pac-Man finally arrived she moved as slowly as a turtle. My friend, who was more fortunate, tells me that when he was young he would spend hours on Sunday playing Super Mario Brothers, and by the time the game was over, his thumb was so tired and numb that his mother would bring him a cup of water in which to soak his finger. Those were our problems – long loading times and sore thumbs.
Oh, how things have changed.
Nowadays, instead of worrying about how to make it to the next stage of Donkey Kong, we worry whether our children will be the victims of a cyber-bully. We worry that our daughters will get carried away by the lure of social media and that our sons will communicate via technology in ways he would never dare to face-to-face.
And it’s not just children confronting the allure of an ever-present and always-accessible mode of technology, whether it’s via a computer, Smartphone, or iPhone. Adults, too, grapple with finding a proper balance with technology and social media.
According to Rabbi Ariel Schochet, LAC, MS, Associate Administrator at the JEC Yeshiva of Elizabeth, “both children and adults have become so dependent on technology and we can’t get rid of it. It’s not like a television that you can manage without. This is how the world now operates and communicates.” The Internet and Facebook are here to stay. How best, then, to handle the continuing onslaught? “The important thing is learning to set proper boundaries,” says Rabbi Schochet.
As a clinician at Jewish Family Services, Rabbi Schochet sees his fair share of clients who deal with issues stemming from technological overload. For one couple, the inordinate amount of time the husband and wife were spending on their Smartphones was putting a strain on their marriage. “They weren’t talking to each other,” he recalls. “Instead, they were engaging in quality solitary time with their iPhones.”
Another couple Rabbi Schochet helped was struggling with technology miscommunications. Texts they sent to one another were misinterpreted and led to marital strife. “People are not as quick to be thoughtful when they email or text,” he says, and points out that something as simple as writing in caps can lead to someone wondering why they’re being yelled at. “I spend an entire session working with them on how to write a text that’s more considerate and won’t hurt the other person.”
The preponderance of technology and social media outlets has many more implications than its unrelenting hold on our time and attention. It can also become an easy source for kids to push the envelope, feigning bravado they would never dare muster in real time. Nevertheless, emphasizes Rabbi Schochet, trying to ban it just heightens its allure. It is better to set reasonable limits and establish proper boundaries in how we use technology in our homes.
When parents are aware of how involved their children are on Facebook and other social media sites, they can monitor and guide their kids’ behavior. According to Dr. Tzippora Wallach, Director of Counseling and Guidance Services at the JEC’s Bruriah High School and a Psychologist with a private practice in Monsey and Englewood, a great way to keep tabs on your kid’s Facebook account is to have them “friend” you. Not only will that keep you apprised of what they’re writing and showing on their page, but it is a great method for ensuring that they’ll think twice before showing a racy picture or using inappropriate language.
“Kids lose their inhibitions when they’re on Facebook,” says Dr. Wallach. “Posting rumors and tagging friends inappropriately become easier because they’re not dealing with a person, but with technology. There’s this disconnect between what they would say in person and what they say on Facebook. Furthermore, kids don’t realize how permanent the internet is. Pictures and posts put up years earlier can be looked at by potential employers and schools.”
This ease of communication on Facebook, this hiding behind the screen, also encourages cyber bullying. “It has become a huge issue,” stresses Dr. Wallach. “In cyber bullying we’ve taken size out of the equation. You can be a bully without being big and strong as it used to be in the playground.”
More than just saying mean things about other kids, bullies have begun starting Facebook pages specifically for excluding others. For example, kids have set up “Do not be friends with so and so” pages for kids to rally around. And when a child or teenager is bullied in this way, the consequences can be more than just a few tears.
Although it is somewhat comforting to know that there are anti-bullying laws in New York, New Jersey, and around the country, that doesn’t change much in the way of emotional and social suffering for the victim. Dr. Wallach says that cyber bullying can cause social anxiety, general anxiety, and school phobia. It can make kids nervous and depressed.
It is crucial for parents to speak to their children about internet safety and for kids to know they can turn to their parents for help. Dr. Wallach adds that schools must to be involved in resolving and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for bullying if we hope to eradicate it.
The refrain goes something like this: “Technology can be a force for good or bad. It all depends on how it is used.” Often, when we are reassured by the potential to do good, we revert to our cyber-status quo, perpetuating behaviors that are hurtful. We need to take technology’s risks more seriously, and not assume that we fall on the healthy, positive side of the spectrum. We need to be aware of our own and our children’s activities, evaluate whether they are appropriate, and take real steps to make them so.
Studies have demonstrated that technology literally rewires our brains. Experience tells us that it rewires our relationships. It’s time for us to step up, make smart decisions, and rewire our wireless habits.
You can hear more of Dr. Wallach and Rabbi Schochet’s thoughts on this and other related issues at the upcoming lecture “The Effects of Media and the Internet on Your Children’s Morality.” The Keynote Speaker is Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and other speakers include Rabbi Avrohom Herman, M.S.W, L.S.W, and Dr. Akiva Perlman, PhD. It will be held Saturday night December 22, at the JEC’s Bruriah Campus – 35 North Avenue, Elizabeth, New Jersey. It is free of charge and open to the public.
Keep your kids safe online with Jewish Action’s Playing It Safe: Tips for Parents on Cyber Safety.
Chana Mayefsky is a freelance writer and editor and a regular contributor to the Orthodox Union and Publishers Weekly. She lives in Hillside, NJ with her husband and two daughters.