Review of (and Supplement to) Yeshiva University’s Children in a Digital Age: Parent Guide
Guest post by R. Tzvi Pittinsky
Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the director of educational technology at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey. He writes a popular blog on technology and Jewish education at techrav.blogspot.com
In a talk on the Impact of Technology and Contemporary Culture on Jewish Life, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt describes the tremendous pace of change in today’s society. In past centuries, if one wanted to experience change, one traveled in space. A trip around the next hill might reveal an entirely new culture complete with a different language, economy, entertainment, and form of government. However, one could live for decades or even centuries in the same location and see little if any change. Today’s society is reversed. We live in a global culture. One can travel anywhere in the world and find people dressed in the same styles with the same shopping malls and popular entertainment. However, because of the rapid advancements in technology, if one wants to experience change, one merely needs to wait a few years or sometimes even a few months (not the 70 years of Choni Hama’agel’s slumber) to behold an entirely different society.
This is what makes a parent’s guide to the digital age such a necessity. Many parents have trouble keeping up with their children as they navigate the ever changing world of new media. They need guidance and Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership has provided it with its Children in a Digital Age: Parent Guide (PDF). However, this very difficulty is inherent in any attempt to write a guide to this digital age. By the time the guide is published and disseminated, it is already obsolete; much like last year’s revolutionary iPad was quickly supplanted by the iPad2, with its dual cameras, faster processor, and sleeker design. With that in mind, my review of the Children in a Digital Age: Parent Guide will be less of a review than a supplement. Since the time that this guide was compiled in November 2010, much has changed or come to the fore on the subject of technology in the Jewish community.
This guide contains much useful material. I found the section on cyberbullying to be particularly compelling and on target. In my mind, this issue is the biggest problem that our children face in using technology today. TV has sensationalized the fear of Internet predators as in the popular Dateline NBC series. However, most of our kids have much more to fear from the “friends” they know posting hurtful and/or inappropriate comments or pictures than from some anonymous predators who lurk in cyberspace. As a supplement to what is in the guide, this recent blog post on Facebook Friending 101 for Schools should be required reading for our parents, teachers, and administrators.
Here are four additional supplementary items that I wish to see added or changed for the next edition of this guide. Perhaps Yeshiva University can adopt a wiki model for these types of guides so that they can be constantly revised by multiple authors as technology continues to transform our kids’ lives in new and unanticipated ways.
1. The Emergence of New Social Media Sites
Concerning social media, the guide lists MySpace and Facebook as the two main sites that our children visit. This is only partially correct. While Facebook is by far the most popular social network for our children in middle and high school, MySpace is not, to my knowledge, used by our students anymore. In fact, MySpace has become such a sordid environment that I would be alarmed if I discovered that one of my children was using it. On the other hand, many of our students have started using other forms of social media like Google Buzz and Twitter.
Usage of Google Buzz might surprise some people since it has been maligned by the media as a failure. However, for our younger children, it is often the entry point into the world of social media. This is for a very simple reason; it is integrated into Gmail. Since most children get their first Gmail account by the time they are nine or ten, they automatically have a method of communicating and posting pictures, links, and videos with their peers — Google Buzz. Kids figure this out pretty quickly. I remember looking over my daughter’s shoulder when she was eleven and seeing her entire class having discussions on Google Buzz. None of these children would have been allowed by their parents on Facebook but they were using Google Buzz because it was readily available. This leads to a greater lesson about the ubiquity of social media today. It is everywhere. Short of banning the Internet entirely, I do not think there is an effective way of keeping our children from using it. If one seeks to ban it in one form, our children will merely find another way to use it.
Twitter has been adopted by a sizable minority of our older teenagers. It is still primarily used by twenty and thirty-somethings but some of our high school students have adopted it as an easy way of sharing information or following their favorite celebrities. The public nature of Twitter is alarming for our children and probably the primary reason that most kids do not use it. But, for that very reason, those who use it tend to be much more careful on it than they are on Facebook, which is obviously a plus.
2. The Convergence of Technology Platforms
The most important recent transformation in social networking is not the specific sites our children are accessing but the convergence of technologies which serve as platforms for these sites. The challenge is no longer about putting parental controls on the desktop or laptop computer and keeping that computer in a public place. Our students are accessing social media everywhere, using their cell phone, iPod Touch, iPad, Kindle, etc. If they own a wifi-enabled device and live in a home that has wifi then they have full access to social media.
Philip Rosenthal, a noted Internet safety expert, has compared giving one’s child an iPod Touch to giving him a loaded gun. This obvious hyperbole points to the destruction that these devices can cause when used carelessly. The issue is not isolated to Facebook since our children can just as easily send disturbing content via text, instant message, or video chat. Posting disturbing content is not the only problem our community faces. With his recent articles on Half Shabbos, Prof. Alan Brill has brought to the forefront the issue of otherwise “frum” teenagers who are so addicted to their electronic devices that they cannot even stop texting on Shabbos. So what can we do to combat this?
3. Strategies for addressing these issues
In addition to the advice in the parent’s guide, our community could benefit from the advice of our rabbanim and academics in these areas. Here is a survey of some recent shiurim on this topic posted on YUTorah.org. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder in a Sichos Mussar on Internet and Technology discusses the lack of Tzniut that these technologies foster. We live in a society where many people seek to broadcast their every action through Facebook, Youtube, and the like. This is especially problematic for teenagers who are naturally self-absorbed. Besides the content of these “broadcasts,” which can be very alarming, the very idea that others are interested in our every action in itself is a problem that we need to discuss with our children.
Rabbi Mordechai Willig in a talk on The Internet – The danger, Issur Yichud, the importance of filters and ‘Areivim’ discusses his desire to add a new “Issur Yichud” when using the Internet. He believes that one should not go online unless one is in a public place where there is a distinct possibility that one can be interrupted by others. This advice, which might be good for adults, is imperative for our children. Even with the preponderance of devices, our children should know that we are always watching them no matter what device they may be using.
I remember a talk on this topic that Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz gave to a group of parents. One parent asked him what they should do if their child wanted to join Facebook. His response was to join Facebook with him and friend him on the social networking site. The guide also recommended this even if one’s child resents it. My experience is that if we friend our children as a condition to allowing them to join Facebook, they won’t resent it. They will appreciate the fact that we let them join in an open and honest way. It is when one attempts to friend one’s children after they have been on Facebook for a number of years that one might face intense resentment from the children.
One final, essential piece of advice comes from Dr. David Pelcovitz in a talk on Maintaining Kedusha in an Overexposed Society. He quotes Victor Frankl, who said that between stimulus and response is a pause and that is where our humanity is. We have to teach our children to pause before they post. This moment for thoughtful reflection can prevent many hurtful comments and pictures. The challenge is that this pause is among the hardest things for kids to do, especially when they are middle school age. I do not know how to teach our kids to do this without moderating all their comments before they post. (By the way, parental moderation would be a great feature for Facebook to add for children aged 12-14. I know that 13 is the official age when kids are allowed to join Facebook but every child that I know started when they were 12 and “fudged” their age.)
We live in a world that puts a premium on real-time information. Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains describes how even Google has changed its algorithm to give more weight to information that is recent than to information that is important. How does one teach one’s kids to pause in such a fast paced society?
4. The Positives of Social Media
I would be remiss if I did not end this review/supplement with a mention of the positives of social media. There is a reason why our children (and we, for that matter) are so drawn to social media and it is not entirely negative. Clay Shirky, in his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, describes how social media can serve as a tremendously positive force not only for keeping in touch with friends but for organizing people around a common cause. He discusses how the Internet has transformed our use of our excess free time, our “cognitive surplus,” from primarily passive mediums like television to more active online communications.
I will give one example. A group of like-minded students in my school decided a few years ago that they wanted to advocate on behalf of the State of Israel, a common passion of our more politically motivated kids. Instead of phoning a few friends, they started a group which they called Students 4 Israel and created a wiki which they used to coordinate congressional letter writing campaigns, petition signings, campaigns to purchase Israeli products, and other meaningful actions on behalf of Israel. These campaigns soon involved hundreds of students in multiple schools, all writing letters or signing petitions on the same day. They recently upgraded their wiki to a full-fledged website StudentsUnite4Israel.org and now include members from over a dozen participating high schools. This type of political action and information gathering is what makes social media so attractive to and powerful for our kids. It is our job to provide them with proper supervision and guidance so they can utilize these positive aspects of social media without suffering from the common setbacks which Yeshiva University’s Children in a Digital Age: Parent Guide seeks to help us avoid.