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Thursday, November 14, 2019

With the tech revolution has come the benefit of affordable screens for everyone. But does that mean everyone should have one, even elementary school-aged children? Are yeshiva day school students, already burdened with a dual Hebrew-English curriculum, buckling under the stress of too much unfettered, unrestricted screen-time?

The answer to that last question is a resounding “yes” from parents, and concern has become so great that six Bergen County heads of school spent the summer reviewing the data and meeting together, with an eye to developing guidelines and standards in relation to social media and screen usage for their students.

The Background

Even without considering the dual curriculum, more and more studies have shown the detrimental effect that too much screen time has on our children. According to Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-based clinical psychologist and author of the 2013 book “The Big Disconnect,” younger children are increasingly unable to model positive social interactions, yet continue to fall prey to screen time over social time or imaginative, interactive (in real life) play. As they get older, children with unfettered access to social media often unwittingly become targets of online bullying by their classmates as they chat, and many are exposed to inappropriate or profane images for which they are unprepared. Anecdotes of children as young as 12 sharing disturbing, questionable or even illegal images on social media networks abound.

The Bergen County yeshiva heads of school, who together preside over almost 5,000 students from the ages of kindergarten through eighth grade, noted that parents often don’t know how or haven’t been warned to monitor their children’s social media usage for appropriate interactions, and/or have not prioritized reviewing pediatrician-recommended guidelines with their children for appropriate screen use. And children of all ages, and many of their parents as well, are losing sleep because of FOMO (fear of missing out), leading everyone to delay turning off screens at bedtime.

“Every day we learn more about how the human brain, especially the child’s brain, reacts to all this tech. It’s challenging because we had all fallen in love with tech before we had the science to understand what to do with it,” said Steiner-Adair, who was brought to Bergen County by The Moriah School to speak last year.

While there are many benefits to technology, parents have been asking schools for advice in “how to say no” to their children’s request for their own phones, said Rav Tomer Ronen, head of school at Yeshivat He’Atid. He explained that parents have spent the past few years attempting to get control of screen usage on their own at home, but have come to the conclusion that they cannot do it alone and they need to partner with the schools and other parents. Children younger and younger continue to clamor for screens in their homes, and they always argue that all of his or her classmates have their own device already, but that just isn’t the case, Rav Ronen said, not by a long shot.

The solutions now being offered have been borne out of a deeply held concern that the heads of school in Bergen County have for their students, and in direct response to requests from the parents to address it, said Rabbi Saul Zucker, head of school at Ben Porat Yosef. The guidelines include qualitative suggestions such as children under sixth grade should not have their own device at all, and a recommendation that parents should delay giving children their own device even after sixth grade. As screens do become appropriate for older students as they conclude middle school, usage should have quantity restrictions, with time limits set; a unified grade-wide shut-off time is being recommended so that students can get the zzzs they need.

“We need to take the reigns and say it’s OK to develop the child in a more wholesome atmosphere,” said Rabbi Zucker. “The social emotional health of our children is at risk, and parents know it,” Zucker said.

“We want to create a community that is conscientious and deliberate about social media usage,” said Rabbi Daniel Alter, head of school at The Moriah School. Alter shared that Moriah does not allow children to have phones in school at all, and that parent committees for each grade are working parallel to this effort to instigate appropriate grade-wide policies regarding healthy social media usage.

“All of us in the community recognize the many benefits of technology,” said Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, head of school at Yavneh Academy. “At the same time, we recognize there needs to be restrictions. There is certainly strength in numbers, knowing that other parents are struggling with this,” he said.

“We have to come together as a community to solve this problem. Families are suffering, and children are suffering,” said Rabbi Daniel Price, head of school at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey.

“This couldn’t be solved with one school alone,” said Rabbi Chaim Hagler, head of school at Yeshivat Noam. “Our students are interacting with each other, with students from different schools; the norms have to be set community-wide and not just school-wide.”

“The data on this is pretty clear. Children’s media usage directly correlates to all types of things, from anxiety to higher levels of frustration. We need to set rules, limits and create norms. In every area of life, we as parents set limits. Limits about when they go out, when they go to sleep, what they should eat. Our goal is to regain that sense of control about social media in a way that’s healthy for our children,” said Rabbi Alter.

The Guidelines

To that end, Rabbis Zucker, Ronen, Price, Hagler, Alter and Knapp have worked together all summer to develop the following guidelines for parents, which will be publicized by each school community:

  1. Students younger than sixth grade should not have their own online device. Any device needed for safety should have calling/texting enabled between parents or caregivers only.
  2. Parents should enforce grade-wide shut-off times at least one hour before bedtime, and devices should not be charged or stored in bedrooms overnight.
  3. Parents should set up and use parental controls, and actively monitor their children’s screen usage.
  4. Parents should model healthy screen usage for their children.

Parental buy-in is essential for this effort to work. “We need parents to come on board and partner with us and make this a healthier process for our children,” Hagler added.

As an example, Rav Ronen shared something he noticed about the breakdown of normal social interactions. Last year on the school’s middle school class trip to Boston, “We let the kids have their phones with them on the bus. And as I was walking up the aisle to talk to the kids, I noticed they were all on their phones. I stopped to talk to two girls who were both texting and asked them what they were doing. It turned out they were texting each other, sitting side-by-side. Why didn’t they just turn and talk to each other?” he asked.

“Students should not be on their screens. They should spend their time outside, talking to each other, being with each other, developing the social skills we want them to have,” said Rav Ronen.

Followup

The school heads seek to bring back an earlier era for today’s children, when cell phones were not central to everyone’s lives and children could learn by talking with one another and with adults, exploring the world without asking for assistance from Siri or Alexa, and without a computer game to pass time that could have been used for learning, reading or playing and relaxing with friends and siblings. “Think back to your childhood; you probably remember a certain sense of innocence,” said Rabbi Zucker. “Today, because of the culture, and because of our devices, a lot of time is being eaten up by less-than-wholesome activities, and not shared. Students stay up late at night on their phones. They stay up way beyond the times that are appropriate for their ages because of chatting online,” he said.

The less-than-wholesome nature of the internet is also of great concern for Jewish children, the school heads note. “We all know the expression that ‘the eyes are the windows of the soul,’ but what I think is happening is ‘what the eyes see can harm the soul.’ Walking down the street, in their room privately, in a bathroom at school… the impact this can have on their neshama is very great,” said Rabbi Price.

This fall, as part of the guidelines are rolled out, each school will have their own followup conversations with parents and students, working to fully secure parents as partners with the guidelines. Later this fall, the heads of school also plan to have several screenings of films relevant to these policies, with more activities and programs planned from there within each school community. The heads of school also plan to work with the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County to speak in every local shul about this topic on an upcoming coordinated Shabbat.

From the school heads’ perspective, this entire process must continue to be a collaboration within the community for the benefit of school-aged children. “Our responsibility as parents and educators is to guide, teach and protect our children. I am confident that this initiative will provide our children with better guidance, enable us to better educate, and equip us to better protect our children as they navigate this ever-evolving digital world they are growing up in,” said Rabbi Hagler.

The heads of school have created a video explaining their effort, which is available here: https://tinyurl.com/y4dqr5m4. For more information or to ask questions, visit [email protected].

By Elizabeth Kratz