Unplugging the Digital Generation

How tech is affecting our kids and what we are doing about it

“No one is ever really listening to anyone.” 

That’s how Penina (not her real name), a seventeen-year-old yeshivah high school junior from the Midwest characterizes in-person relationships among the teens she knows.

“We all spend too much time on our phones,” says Penina. “When we’re hanging out in person, we’re on our phones. At events, we’re on our phones. We have no idea how to spend time together. And if you point out to someone that they’re looking at their phone when you’re talking to them, they get all defensive about it.”

Her friends are mostly busy with social media, Penina says. While she uses Snapchat and TikTok, she spends the most time on Instagram. “I use it to see what my friends post—what people are doing, where they are going—and for shopping,” she explains.

Not only does social media take up all their free time, it often makes her friends feel badly about themselves too. “A lot of girls feel insecure because of Instagram,” says Penina. “They constantly compare themselves to what they see.” She adds that many of her friends post pictures on social media so they’ll be seen in a certain way, even if it’s not how they would dress or act in real life—which intensifies insecurities all around.

Lynn Kraft, a teacher at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Skokie, Illinois, agrees that high schoolers are consumed with social media. “They’re aware now that it’s not healthy—which wasn’t the case just a few years ago—and they know some of the negative impacts. But that awareness is not necessarily helping them curb their usage.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children today are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices. Insecurities prompted by social media are just one of the many issues related to technology use and its impact on children’s development and overall well-being. On social media, there is also a tendency to be self-promotional and to highlight negativity and cynicism—traits that can be harmful to one’s spiritual growth.

While parents and schools may feel like they are constantly reacting to the latest devices, apps and platforms, leaders are advocating and offering proactive solutions. Within the Orthodox community, several initiatives have been launched to tackle the challenge head-on. Taking different approaches, they aim to help schools educate children, support overwhelmed parents and even empower young people themselves to make healthy digital choices.

Digital Responsibility

Rabbi Eli Samber, head of school at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in Chicago, has noticed a clear shift in the attitude of parents toward technology over his seventeen years in school leadership roles. “When I started, parents were saying, ‘Come on, it’s not so bad, it’s just the next invention,’” he recalls. “Eventually, I started hearing from parents, ‘This is really scary.’ Parents don’t know what to do, and they’re turning to the school for guidance.” To address the issue, Arie Crown introduced The Digital Citizenship Project, a program that aims to educate communities about the norms of responsible and healthy behavior with regard to technology use.

Since founding The Digital Citizenship Project in 2014, Dr. Eli Shapiro has worked with more than 300 Jewish schools and organizations across North America in various capacities. He offers a full curriculum, teacher training and parent programs “to teach digital responsibility in an age of technology.” He also offers consulting to schools to help administrators and boards of directors “craft policies that make sense for their community.” Shapiro, a New York–based clinical social worker with a doctorate in education, created the curriculum and programming with the help of Temima Feldman, the current head of school at the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School in Manhattan. “Our goal is to train kids to maximize what technology has to offer and avoid its inherent challenges,” says Shapiro. “Our project promotes thoughtful and deliberate discussion.”

To Rabbi Samber, The Digital Citizenship Project was a perfect fit for his school. “We don’t believe technology is evil,” he explains, “but we’re acutely aware of its potential dangers.” Because Shapiro’s expertise is in Orthodox schools, “he understands where we are coming from. He was able to share what worked elsewhere and advise us on how to accomplish our goals.”

Shapiro stresses that his work is data-driven and rooted in research. “We deliberately made a program with no hashkafic bent,” he says. “Whether schools embrace technology or minimize it—our basic truths are the same. They can add hashkafah if they choose.” The curriculum’s ten modules explore topics such as impulsivity, disinhibition and cyberbullying. “The lessons focus on fundamental skills,” Shapiro explains. “Even as technology changes and evolves, these concepts will remain relevant.”

To encourage children to engage in conversation with their parents, The Digital Citizenship Project includes a “Go Dark for Dinner” challenge in which children can earn prizes when the family has meals without technology at the table. “This idea was actually suggested by one of my own kids,” says Shapiro, a father of four. “We implemented it in our house and saw how it created a totally different dynamic within the household.”

The Digital Citizenship Project’s strategy is based on a partnership between schools, parents and the students themselves. However, the approach hinges on schools adopting the curriculum and starting the dialogue. “Ultimately, the responsibility [of children’s use of technology] falls on parents,” explains Shapiro. “But schools play a more prominent role in family life these days. Parents may be unaware of things that are going on, whereas schools can see a broader picture.”

To move the needle in this area, “it takes a comprehensive and systemic approach,” he says. “We need to educate parents, and we need to educate kids to make healthy decisions on their own.”

Technology and Mental Health

Over the past twenty years, concerns about the impact of technology on children have evolved in a dramatic way. “Back when I started working on this in the mid-2000s, the only conversation was the content of the Internet,” recalls Shapiro. “No one was talking about the broader impact of these new media on children’s functioning.”

Now, research points to significant social-emotional issues related to technology usage among children and teens. Between 2009 and 2017, as personal devices became mainstream, rates of depression in young people rose alarmingly, according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

In mid-September of 2021, the Wall Street Journal published an exposé demonstrating that Facebook has long known its Instagram platform is “toxic” for teen girls. Internal documents from the company showed that 32 percent of teen girls said that when they feel bad about their bodies, Instagram makes them feel worse. A Senate hearing followed, and the issue is of concern on both sides of the partisan divide.

Last year, a Pew research study showed that 71 percent of parents worry their kids spend too much time on screens—and that data was gathered before the global pandemic.

At Arie Crown, efforts to address technology usage ground to a halt when the pandemic began in 2020. “We had to hit a pause button,” says Rabbi Samber. “We had been working on getting children off screens, and now we were throwing them on Zoom. It was counterproductive to address technology at that time.”

To Rabbi Samber, the pandemic highlighted the issues related to children’s overuse of technology. “Children must learn the art of social skills and healthy engagement with peers and adults,” he says. “Most children pick up on these things at school. It’s clear these important skills have taken a hit over the past two years.” He sees some kids struggling to focus with the normal distractions inherent in being in a classroom with a group of children.

Additionally, Rabbi Samber reports, the pandemic created the idea in children’s minds that going to school is optional. “We’ve seen a lot more school resistance,” he says. Some children now perceive school as interfering with their online activities. With the need more apparent than ever, Rabbi Samber is working hard to restart The Digital Citizenship Project at Arie Crown.

“But Everyone Has One”

Alongside the efforts of the school administration, Arie Crown parents have implemented a program known as Mothers Unite to Stall Technology (M.U.S.T.). A grassroots program, M.U.S.T. aims to unify parents to postpone the age at which children are allowed to own smart devices, and to combat peer pressure related to technology usage in Jewish schools. The program trains “parent ambassadors” to spearhead discussions with the other parents of their child’s classmates. Ultimately, the group of parents agree on a pact that outlines standards around technology use for the children in the class—which is then reassessed at regular intervals.

“The notion of ‘stalling’ is super important to us,” explains Nechy Eisenstadt, who founded M.U.S.T. with Michal Klerer five years ago. “We don’t dream that we will stop, or never take part in, technology. We’re just trying to put it off while our kids learn vital skills of communication and forming relationships.”

Eisenstadt, a creative arts therapist, and Klerer, a social worker, both live in Brooklyn and spend their summers in the same bungalow colony in upstate New York. As mothers of children spanning different ages and stages, they experienced firsthand the frustration many parents feel when their children start asking for their own phone. They realized that the peer pressure among classmates was causing a snowball effect regarding children receiving their own devices. “We’ve spoken to hundreds of moms, across the gamut of the community,” says Klerer. “Ten out of ten said they wish they had pushed off getting their kids their own devices. If not for the pressure, they would have been happy not to give their child a phone.” Although a large percentage of the calls they receive are from worried parents of seventh graders, the two women say their program works best for children in younger grades. “Preventively, it’s easier to implement shared norms before the kids start coming home talking about what ‘all the other kids have,’” explains Klerer.

Perhaps because of her experiences with high school students, Lynn Kraft has been concerned about her children and technology “almost since they were born,” she says with a laugh. She volunteers as a M.U.S.T. parent ambassador for her son’s fifth grade class in Arie Crown. She has found that most parents are on board with the initiative. “They’re definitely interested in working together,” she says, “although some parents are simply opposed to being told what to do with their technology choices.” Eisenstadt highlights that M.U.S.T. does not address families’ technology usage. “We only address personal devices for kids,” she says. “It’s a whole different ball game when young people have their own.”

Kraft appreciates that the program is designed to find a common ground for parents that isn’t overwhelming. “The conversation is about these kids, at this age and this stage,” she explains. “It’s one year at a time.”

Because the discussions are so specific to the cohort, Klerer and Eisenstadt stress that pacts sometimes look very different even for two parallel classes at the same school. One group of parents may agree, for example, not to give their kids a device at all that year, while another may settle on guidelines like no technology on playdates or a specific “bedtime” for devices. “There are endless options for parents to agree on,” says Klerer, noting that parents of girls tend to be more concerned with online chats and social media, while parents of boys focus more on gaming. Regardless, “every month that kids aren’t focused on their screens, they are maturing.”

“I definitely think M.U.S.T. compels parents to think about the situation,” maintains Kraft. “It allows parents to clarify their own values and discuss communal values.” Indeed, the importance of M.U.S.T. played out for Kraft when her child’s classmates started playing a certain online game. “We saw it was getting addictive, and we were concerned,” she recalls. “As parents, we all agreed together that this was not a great idea. Each of us was able to confidently say to our child, ‘No, not everyone is doing this.’”

M.U.S.T. has made its way into schools across the spectrum of Orthodoxy, throughout North America and even in Europe. Klerer stresses that the program’s success lies in the fact that it is parent-led; she and Eisenstadt decline to work directly with schools. “Parents give devices to kids but expect the schools to make rules and enforce them,” she says. “It’s not reasonable. Based on our experience, schools cannot be involved. Parents are the last stop.”

“When it comes to technology, we throw our hands up and feel helpless,” adds Eisenstadt. “We think, ‘It’s 2022, and it’s here to stay.’ But when parents are united, there’s so much we can accomplish.”

Cutting the Cord

Simcha and Zviya Loiterman of Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, New York, weren’t willing to simply accept how technology was affecting their four children, who range in age from seven to fifteen. “We grew up with TV,” explains Simcha, a teacher. He and his wife, a social worker, allowed their children to watch certain cartoons on PBS Kids or Netflix. “But technology today is designed not to be put down,” he says. “We saw our kids living from moment to moment on what they’d watch. They were being hypnotized by the devices.”

Several years ago, the couple decided to “cut the cord” for themselves first. “One day I found the kids fighting over the computer, and I said, ‘No more!’” says Zviya. “The kids were not happy about this at all.”

The Loitermans are glad they addressed their family’s technology habits when their children were still relatively young. “We saw a huge change in the kids right away,” says Zviya. “They started playing with each other. They started reading and going outside with their friends.”

Simcha believes schools can and should make rules around technology use—which teens may even come to appreciate. But parents need to recognize the key role they themselves play. “We’re so used to outsourcing,” he says. “We underestimate our ability to influence our kids.”

By being mindful and setting clear parameters around the use of devices at home, the Loitermans hope their children learn that technology can be a helpful tool—as long as one remains in control of it. “Whether it’s social media, entertainment apps, or even just online shopping, technology can take on a life of its own—it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole,” Simcha says. “We’re trying to teach our kids healthy boundaries.”

Empowering Teens

Instilling in teens core Torah values to cope with the challenges of living in the digital age is the focus of Penimi, an international educational program. Based on sifrei Maharal, Derech Hashem, Sefat Emet and other machshavah sources, Penimi, which means “my essence,” aims to have students focus on developing their inner selves so that they can make good choices “with a clarity and a confidence,” says Faigie Zelcer, Penimi’s founder. “That’s the essential point of the program.”

Zelcer, who taught for many years in girls high schools in Montreal, originally created Penimi in 2013 to teach concepts of tzeniut; at the request of rabbinic leaders, she later added a technology curriculum as well, which is currently used in 260 schools and communities worldwide.

“Teens are not going to be in school forever,” says Zelcer. “And inevitably they are going to be using technology in one way or another. We need to give them the tools to cope with that. And it’s not only about installing a filter,” she says, “it’s about knowing how to handle the changing values in today’s world. Privacy, she says, is no longer viewed as desirable or even important. “Privacy used to be an obvious value. A date night used to be private and special. Today, people will go on a date night just for the sake of sharing the photos online.”

Having students reflect on the benefits of privacy, the Penimi curriculum might include questions such as: “What does it do to you when you livestream significant moments so that instead of becoming an agent of your life, you become an observer?”

Getting teens to think long and hard about the various ways technology might be affecting not only their behavior but also their thought processes is central to the curriculum, which covers topics such as silence, friendship and happiness, among other values—all elements, explains Zelcer, of “cultivating an inner life.”

A Penimi-trained teacher exploring the value of silence and developing a rich inner life might ask: “How does creating an online persona affect your identity and your sense of self?” In the lesson on friendship, the Penimi curriculum, which is highly interactive with class games, activities to spark discussions, video clips and journal assignments, includes a story about a young woman who invited all 700 of her Facebook friends to a party. Only seventeen “friends” replied and only one friend showed up. The section concludes with the question: “What do we want our friendships to look like?”

Penimi, which offers teacher training as well as adult education, is currently a member of the third cohort of the OU Impact Accelerator, a program that identifies promising Jewish nonprofits and advances their causes through education, mentorship and collaboration. Zelcer hopes her participation in the Impact Accelerator will enable her to expand the program to more schools and create a curriculum for boys schools as well. “Penimi encourages students to make their own informed decisions about their use of technology,” says Jenna Beltser, founding director of the OU Impact Accelerator. “The organization’s multi-pronged approach, which includes empowering students, focuses on decision-making and knowledge rather than forcing students down a particular path.”

Esti Sussman, a school counselor at Bais Yaakov of Detroit, has seen firsthand that Penimi’s approach works. She has been teaching the curriculum, within the context of a life skills course, to twelfth graders for about five years. “The curriculum is very engaging for students,” she says. “There are videos, cartoons, articles—lots of great ideas and options to meet the needs of the students in a classroom.” Each topic ends with a “Tech Task” challenge for the students to try, such as forgoing a specific digital convenience for two weeks. “I hear from them how impactful these exercises are, and they come back after high school and tell me how our conversations affected their decisions.” Sussman appreciates that Penimi creates an atmosphere “where these topics can be discussed in a way that’s non-judgmental—which is so important with this age group.”

Although there’s no “magic pill” to make the problems of technology go away, says Shapiro, he believes that schools and parents can work together to give children the tools they need to navigate the reality of their digital lives and emerge as healthy, functioning adults. These lessons are especially important since children today don’t know what life was like before everyone had constant access to a smartphone. “We need to remember that they have no barometer to measure against,” he says. “We can’t blame the kids. It’s our job to teach them.”

In the end, children and even teens may be more open to having conversations around their use of technology than their parents and teachers suspect. Penina feels that parents could do a better job keeping up with their kids’ online behavior. And high schools should feel more confident making and enforcing rules on when and how students can use their phones. “I think if they talked about it more openly with us, we’d be more equipped on our own to handle all the stuff that comes up,” she says.

And as their awareness of the challenges of technology grows, young people may be ready to listen.

Rachel Schwartzberg is a writer and editor, who lives with her family in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

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This article was featured in the Spring 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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