Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a…fraid.
Hal 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.
– Fred Rogers
I never noticed getting fat. The notion simply crept up on me; a pass in the mirror, a look at the scale, a suit salesman gently informing me my actual waist size, an unflattering picture. It’s hard to tell exactly when and how I amassed all that…mass. But you could say that if I did not do anything, I could have a massive problem on my hands (and my belly).
Like my waist line, technology has gotten out of control. Tech has gone past its cute little belly phase, beyond love handles and into being morbidly obese.
Take a walk through the hallways of schools that fail to devise or enforce a technology policy; it’s like passing through the smoking section of an airplane from the 1970s. As a teacher, I have seen kids – ages 8 to 18 – become helpless and lured deeper into the ether of Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, shmutz, Netflix, gaming, and everything else. Quicker than a grizzled smoker lights up on a break, the phones leap out, in hand at every available moment; when a teacher turns around, when classes let out, when class starts, in the hallways, on the bus, during davening (sometimes the teachers – even the principals – do the same). On cold days, smokers pathetically shiver outside, braving the elements just to satisfy their urges with a long drag. Inside, kids jockey for position and hunch around wall outlets, practically camping out next to them to satisfy their urges with a screen.
Back in 2012, a small number of students had an iPhone. They reached them in a variety of ways: privilege, older siblings vacating them for their year in Israel, as bar mitzvah presents, a sweet deal on a family plan. It was a steady drip, still a luxury – not yet a necessity – and the novelty of owning such a phone still existed. But by 2014, nearly every middle school student had one, and by 2016, 4th and 5th graders had theirs, too. In the aftermath, interpersonal skills are stunted, brain chemistry is scrambled, and priorities are skewed.
Hallways and classrooms are bloated with boys and girls hunched over their devices as teachers and administrators turn a blind eye to what should be a watershed moment. But it isn’t. Had I not seen it, I wouldn’t believe it.
The iPad was pitched as a magazine stand and a library for the palm of your hand and it is, just with whole lot of baggage – baggage we can’t resist. Our use of technology is slowly shifting from being in control to being controlled.
We are adapting to each upgrade faster and faster, sometimes forgetting to ask ourselves why. Tech designers keenly understand the human condition, and by design make it harder and harder to resist their offerings. We thrive on reaching goals, receiving feedback, feeling progress, and resolving uncertainties. Games, streaming media sites, social networks, and news outlets know just how to bait us into coming back.
Virtual reality, or VR, is fast advancing. Google Glass failed, but it’s next iteration will reach us sooner or later. If we couldn’t stop playing Candy Crush, how do we stand a chance against VR? How much is your time worth to you?
The time has come to break free. It’s time to go on a digital diet.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the kids are upstairs playing. No iPads, computers, or phones.
For the past several years, our kids only used the computer on Sundays and Fridays. The arrangement was convenient; the kids were distracted while my wife and I did work and got things done. Despite the narrow screen hours and a very limited amount of sights allowed on a filtered computer, there were issues.
For one thing, there were dust-ups and arguments about what to watch; for another, they spent every last possible second watching (especially for those Motza’ei Shabbos media binges), sometimes so immersed that we’d call them five or six times before getting an answer.
One Erev Shabbos about five months ago, after calling one of our kids about eleven times to take a bath, and after breaking up yet another argument over watching Wild Krats or Daniel Tiger, I walked over to the computer closed it and put it up high.
We told ourselves for the longest time that we were fine because we probably did more than what a lot of other parents were doing. We didn’t have Netflix, I used a flip-phone, we didn’t pacify our kids on long lines with a screen, and we steered clear of social media – so we thought we were doing okay. The reality was that we had very soft rules that were getting tested and stretched constantly. As parents, we got sloppy with already vague rules, and somehow our kids were watching their shows on weeknights, too. How long could this last? When would they stumble onto seeing something inappropriate (if they didn’t already)? Is this the only way they knew how to spend their free time?
We were initially petrified about what would happen. We worried that our kids –especially our youngest who can be kind of a terror – would run amuck, fight more, or rebel. What happened instead was kind of amazing.
The kids, perhaps sensing that we meant what we said about our new rules, adjusted quickly and traded virtual for corporal, distraction for imagination. They quit watching and started playing. Toys came out, then the arts and crafts supplies, and even books! The kids invented their own entertainment putting on shows, developing board games, and making up card games. We spent more quality time together. They quickly learned to play with one another, which is what they should have been doing all along. They actually fought less, they practiced social skills, and worked a good share of problems out by themselves.
Our youngest child, the one who broke a window, swung hockey sticks at his siblings, was prone to fits, the one who used the iPad the most, how would he react? It was interesting. Without nonstop entertainment from Dude Perfect, he found a fresh stack of books from the library, lay on his belly, rested his pudgy cheeks in his little hands and entertained himself for an hour looking at the pictures; when he was done, he moved on to magna tiles and blocks. The one whose transition scared us the most adjusted the best. He’s like a cute little billy-goat.
My wife and I soon noticed that we relied on technology more than necessary and that it was affecting our home, as well. To set a good example and to find out what a more disconnected life looked like, we scaled our screen time back, as well. It feels like a weight was lifted off our shoulders; we are more present, less distracted, and it has also helped our family dynamic.
We make a ton of trips to the library, I still get ignored when I call the kids, they still argue, and it helps to keep the blunt object out of reach of our youngest. We still feel the pangs for the old days, and it gets hard when our kids’ friends use tech more than they do, but what we have now is so special. I wish we did this years ago.
There are lots of reasons for trimming the fat on tech: religious, emotional, developmental. Pick one. You can’t gain 30 pounds of fat in a day and you can’t lose it in a day either. Adapting good habits and realizing that there is a problem goes a long way in affecting any change. There is no one-size-fits-all resolution, but stalling technology and creating a framework for healthy habits for tech is crucial. We personally have noticed the benefits.
We used to control technology, but now we are under its control. It used to be a luxury, but now it’s a necessity. The Midrash teaches that when we became enslaved to the Mitzrim we did so willingly, allowing ourselves to be gradually lured into an almost inescapable prison. It took monumental, miraculous feats to bring us out of that slavery. I believe we are making the exact same mistake with technology today.
People mistake doing anything they want in an unchecked way for freedom, but this is not freedom. Never saying no to anything means being out of control – the way we are with technology. This is a slavery of its own kind. Slaves are inhibited by a seemingly unbreakable force placed upon them. Today, many of us subject ourselves to the same kind of control.
In Yisro, we finally became free; at Har Sinai, Hashem brought us close, and bound us to Him forever as a nation when He gave us his wonderful Torah. We were finally free. We could finally break loose from the ways of Mitzrayim and we gained control of our lives. We can do the same today for ourselves and our families with our technology use. Disconnecting is a chance to refine the way we live, become enlightened, and choose a life lived the way Hashem envisioned. We can be free at last.
Simcha Loiterman is a resident of Kew Gardens Hills. He is available for speaking engagements and presentations or a cup of coffee and a good talk. He would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels very strongly that you can learn from everyone because we all have stories to tell, lessons to teach, and can kindle a spark of goodness inside. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in “Life.” Visit his blog at thisisloit.wordpress.com to learn more of his ideas and opinions about our beautiful world.