For years, Modern Orthodoxy has fought hard to allow elements of secular culture into the Torah world. Modern Orthodoxy must now face a new challenge, unparalleled by any other in its history.
Once upon a time, most American Jews were able to set up their own barriers of how much influence non-Jewish culture could have on their children—how much and to what extent it could enter their homes. Television programming, monitored by the once strict Federal Communications Commission, was kosher, and inappropriate books, magazines and movies were difficult for children and young adults to access. In other words, parents, and on a larger scale, communities, had the ability to set up their own, custom-made filters between Jewish and non-Jewish society, keeping out bad influences while welcoming all the positive things secular society had to offer.
Obviously, this system wasn’t perfect. Kids and certainly teenagers can always find ways to get into trouble. But this can be said of any time period and social circle and is nearly impossible to prevent. So, parents and communities did their best to selectively benefit from non-Jewish culture, which—when done right—was a physically and spiritually safe way to live.
Unfortunately, as society changes, negative cultural influences can sneak into Jewish society without the consent of parents and community leaders. Even when they are alert and proactive, decisions are often made for them before they get the chance to voice their opinion.
Moreover, individuals may disagree with their neighbors about whether or not a particular aspect of secular culture should be embraced by Jewish society, and become frustrated when everybody else accepts it as the norm and they can no longer do anything about it. Such frustration is likely to occur if the modern world becomes increasingly immoral and spiritually dangerous, creating more causes for conflict.
When Modern Orthodoxy encounters such turmoil, it must then make a decision—to distance itself from certain aspects of secular society or to accept them—and then must be prepared to deal with the repercussions of either choice. For a while, this system worked pretty well.
Fast forward to 2019, when smartphones allow nearly every yeshiva high school student to enter into any virtual reality that an unsupervised teenage brain could hope for. By far, the primary threat posed by the modern world to Modern Orthodoxy is technology, specifically smartphones with unmonitored internet access for teenagers. The very influences that Jewish parents fight hard to keep their children away from are visited by many teenagers in the privacy of their own bedrooms on a nightly basis.
Many if not most Torah-observant parents would be horrified by the idea of their children going to parties with alcohol and drugs, and visiting bars with non-Jewish friends. Yet, many of their children are doing those things right now in their bedrooms, with their fictional, televised non-Jewish friends.
This exposure results in Jewish teens who are under the same influences as average American public school students. And this results in Jewish teens who act and talk and think like average American public school students, at least when their parents aren’t looking.
When you have a generation of young adults who visit the same places and mimic the lifestyle of average American public school students, it is nearly impossible for them to simultaneously live as Torah Jews. Every parent who spends tens of thousands of dollars annually on yeshiva tuition acknowledges this. Unfortunately they don’t acknowledge this when they hand their child his first smartphone.
But it gets worse: the availability and accessibility of offensive media on the internet is so undeniably widespread that any parent with a son or daughter who has unmonitored internet access and denies the strong probability that their son or daughter is falling victim to viewing explicit content is in complete denial of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Any parent who remains confident in their child’s ability to make proper decisions under the covers, at night, when nobody else is watching, should at least consider the fact that advertisements and pop-up ads seek out and lure even the most innocent of victims.
And let’s be honest about the filters: Do we really know that they’re working? While filters are a great way to protect one’s child from the dangers of harmful online content, teens who discover how to get around weak filters don’t subsequently inform the filters’ programmers. Even parents who install strong filters on their child’s phone but don’t update and monitor them run the risk of their child finding ways to circumvent them.
While all these issues are obvious to members of the smartphone generation like myself, most parents are failing to keep up with today’s world of technology. What adults fail to realize is that today’s technology has transformed the world into a radically different place from the world they grew up in.
Fortunately, some are catching on. One local parent of a 12-year-old boy wrote to The Link about the dangers of social media platforms such as Snapchat, the importance of installing internet filters on children’s devices and the need for parents to talk to their children about internet safety.
In response to this article, Yavneh Academy of Paramus, New Jersey, launched the Yavneh Parent Technology Suggested Guidelines to help parents create safe limits on their children’s internet usage. Yavneh also asked its parents to work together to enforce a unified device shut-off time at night for each grade, to avoid the risks of leaving children unsupervised with their devices during late hours.
This is certainly progress. But let’s do more.
We need a critical mass of parents saying no to unmonitored internet access for their children. Parents need to get back in the driver’s seat and be unafraid to set house rules for internet usage. Allowing a child to freely access the internet is as dangerous for his brain as allowing him to drive a car without a license is dangerous for his body. Parents can start Facebook and WhatsApp groups to create a strong alliance of people determined to keep their children safe from the dangers of unmonitored internet usage.
Schools can follow the example of Yavneh Academy by educating and encouraging both parents and students about the dangers of unmonitored internet usage, providing support to switch to filtered or supervised internet. One way schools can do this by taking advantage of organizations like The Digital Citizenship Project, which seeks to help yeshiva students use the internet responsibly. In addition, schools can provide incentives for students to install filters on their phones, or to trade in their smartphones for basic phones.
Shuls can assemble their congregants on a Sunday afternoon and sponsor tech experts to check and help install filters on their children’s phones, just like they sponsor sofrim to check their mezuzas.
Let’s work together. If we all put in the effort, we can be confident that Modern Orthodox teens will grow up to proudly carry on the legacy of the Jewish people and make the same smart choices their parents made when raising their own children.
By Ezra Epstein
Ezra Epstein is a yeshiva student and a madrich at Aish Gesher. He can be reached by email at [email protected] For more of his articles, visit his blog, “Brick Wall,” at ezraepsteinbrickwall.blogspot.com.