Monday, February 17, 2020

A recent Facebook post about the positive experience of banning electronic devices and phones at Camp Morasha this summer, and an article in The New York Times about how some families are hiring coaches to help them raise phone-free children has given me cause to reflect on life before smartphones and tablets.

Old fogeys and others of my generation and earlier are wont to describe life in the pre-technology age through the prism of myopia tinged with sentimentality. The truth is that every age had to cope with newfangled inventions. Every time something new was introduced it was often viewed as something sinister that would corrupt the youth of America. The Charleston, jazz, rock and roll, pool halls (a la The Music Man) and Elvis immediately come to mind. In the good old days kids played outside, read books, played board games, invented games, occupied themselves with healthy diversions and actually wrote letters.

Telephones were used sparingly for communication. Long distance calls were reserved for special occasions or emergencies and when television came on the scene, even with only five channels in black and white and miniscule screens, parents were concerned about their children being glued to the tube. When hand calculators replaced slide rules and written calculations, the fear (mostly realized) was that children would forget basic mathematical skills. Witness what happens when the store cash register is on the fritz and the cashier cannot figure out change.

Granted the length of a school day may not allow for much outdoor play, but the amount of time spent on electronic devices by children and especially teens, is truly staggering. Social skills, peer interaction, attention span, imagination, creativity, communication skills, independence and family life all suffer. Truth be told, adults also spend too much time on line. Unless one is a surgeon on call, a first responder or a government official there is no need to be constantly “in touch.”

The data available demonstrates the many health and psychological problems associated with 24/6 electronic usage. This ought to generate more than passing interest, and generate some active solutions. There is so much available online and the need to constantly be in contact with one’s besties is now a psychological reality. How do we deal with this epidemic?

Parents around the country are hiring professionals. Consultants now come into homes, schools, churches and synagogues to remind parents how people parented before. Parents are seeking help to deal with screen addiction. Like all parenting, one needs to be consistent and fair. Establishing no-phone times at meals, limiting chat time and encouraging other activities such as reading and sports is a start. Naturally parents need to model this behavior as well.

Some schools have established a no-phone pledge movement. Some consultants recommend getting a pet. Others lay out specific rules to follow when giving a child their first phone. It is hard to wean children off their devices which have become an addiction. Just like successful diets, it’s a lifestyle change.

It is instructive to note that in Silicon Valley, the programmers and executives who create materials for computers have established a school system for their children. There are no calculators or computers allowed in these schools. Maybe we can learn from them.

I am no Luddite and I acknowledge that we are in the 21st century. However, technology must be utilized responsibly. Leisure time is too precious to be squandered hunched over a small screen. It’s also bad for your neck and back.

Summer camp provides a perfect opportunity to grow without cell phones. Campers learn how to creatively relax, how to interact while playing games, how to enjoy non-competitive sports and even how to write letters. It’s what camp is supposed to be. The better non-Jewish camps have had this policy for a while now. It’s time for the Jewish camps to follow suit.

In the not too distant past, I took campers backpacking in the woods and white water rafting. I taught them skills. I created memories. Forget the fact that there was no cell reception in the woods or on the river. To this day I constantly meet adults who still talk about those trips. A child’s world can be expanded without electronics.

By Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator, administrator and day school consultant.