Friday, October 19, 2018

I commend my friend Rabbi Dov Emerson for addressing the issue of our teens, smartphones and social media in his recent article, “Happiness in the Age of Insta: Facing the Challenges of Social Media” (November 2, 2017). When thinking about the issue of Livado that he raised, the struggle of our teens to find their own voice while comparing themselves to the carefully curated personas of their friends on social media, I cannot help but think of the quote by the Kutzker Rebbe, which I first became aware of from the writings of Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski:

If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you!

The Dark Side of Digital Citizenship

This is only one aspect of the challenge our teens face today. An equally important facet of this brave new world is what I would call the dark side of digital citizenship. I believe that we have done a pretty good job as parents and teachers impressing upon our kids the permanent nature of the internet. Our kids know that what they post online stays there. They think carefully before posting a picture of themselves on Instagram. They carefully curate their digital footprint. Many begin to create their online resume for college while still in the 9th or 10th grade.

The flip side of this is that our teens never have the chance to be a kid. They don’t have a healthy place to try on new personas, make mistakes, be a kid, because any mistake could have consequences stretching for years. I remember during my high school and college years I struggled at times to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I sometimes said things or even wrote letters and notes to others that I later regretted. But the audience for these missteps was perhaps one or two people or maybe a group of friends. It was very difficult if not impossible in those pre-internet, pre-smartphone days to get a message out to hundreds or maybe even thousands and have this message stay out there for months or years to come. But this is the world that our kids live in. It gives them great power to do good. Cognitive Surplus is what technology thinker Clay Shirky calls it. But it also gives them little room for error.

Snapchat, Instagram and Finstagram

Our kids have adapted to this world by descending into a more “private” but never really private corner of social media. I am sure most of you have heard of Snapchat, where kids can post silly photos of themselves and others that disappear after a few seconds or maybe after a day, giving kids the illusion of being private even when they are not. But have you heard of “finsta”?

I first heard about this new phenomenon about a year ago and as the “savvy” adult that I am, I immediately tried to search for this Instagram alternative on the app store only to discover later that finsta is not an app. It stands for fake instagram. Once we grownups invaded the world of Instagram, our children responded by creating two and sometimes more Instagram accounts. Most kids today have their real Instagram account where they post pictures of their happy smiling faces, beautiful vacations and wonderful experiences that they wish to share with the world. They then have their “finsta,” their fake instagram account, where they post pictures, sometimes silly, sometimes sinister, to a small group of their “close friends.”

The more responsible teens that I speak to tell me that they mean no harm with their finstas. They use them as a part of their carefully thought out digital footprint, as a forum to try out photos and see what their friends think of them before deciding whether to post them on their more public insta. Let’s think about this for a minute. Professional political pollsters create focus groups to try out new messages for their candidates before deciding which to utilize in their stump speeches and paid advertisements. Our kids similarly create their own finsta groups to try out their newest poses before deciding which to share with the world at large. So where do our kids just have the space to be a kid without having to actively market themselves?

This is a tough question and as Rabbi Emerson pointed out, the most important role we can play as parents and educators is to have this conversation with our children, to help them contemplate the wired world they live in.

The Need to Unplug in Order to Reconnect

The one piece of advice that I provide my students during such discussions is the need to unplug. This can be as simple as putting their smartphone away during davening, powering it off before they go to sleep at night, or storing it on the teacher’s desk during class. Momentary unplugging in an otherwise wired world.

Even more dramatic is the act of unplugging we do each week on Shabbat. Even the secular world is now recognizing the need to take a digital Sabbath each week to unplug and disconnect. For more on this, look up the sabbathmanifesto.org, which hosts a National Day of Unplugging, scheduled this year for November 9-10.

I know there was talk a few years back about the phenomenon of Half Shabbos where kids are so addicted to their phones that otherwise Modern Orthodox kids cannot help but text even on Shabbat. I have not heard much about this recently. Perhaps our teens have come to realize the value to their health, both mentally and physically, of taking a day off from their phone. I feel at peace on Motzi Shabbat after I have had 25 hours to hang out with friends and family, take long walks outside, and just ruminate on ideas without the constant pinging of notifications on my phone. I am sitting here right now on a Motzi Shabbat, writing this piece with a clear mind after reading Rabbi Emerson’s article over Shabbat in the paper edition of The Jewish Link. This is something I believe our teens have come to greatly appreciate as well.

While in shul this Shabbat morning, I overheard some teens planning which friend’s house they would visit to hang out later that afternoon, like I used to with my friends back in high school, something they would never do during the week when they could just group chat to make or change plans on a whim. It was music to my ears. For a few hours they were able to be kids again, hanging out and reconnecting face to face without the distraction and worries of the wired world.

By Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky

 Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the director of educational technology at Yeshivat Frisch. He is an active blogger on topics related to the intersection of technology and Jewish education and an avid user of social media. You can read his blog at http://techrav.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @techrav.