Tech For Teens
August 12, 2021
Newness is in the air. It permeates the classrooms, where freshly waxed floors squeak and pristine whiteboards seem aglow. It filters into our homes, where we prepare for the Yamim Nora’im, taking stock afresh of our lives. What better time is there than this season to address a challenge that affects us all by taking a look at technology use and exploring some of the ways we can protect ourselves and our teenagers from its clutches?
I had the pleasure of engaging in several eye-opening conversations with passionate, devoted individuals who are fighting the frontline battle against technology’s pull on our hearts and minds. Many of these incredible men and women focus specifically on helping our teens wrestle with this ever-changing challenge. I heard both pain and pride in the voices of these activists, who witness both terrible destruction at the hands of devices as well as the incredible sacrifices and desire for growth in our teens.
The sentiments that struck me again and again throughout our talks were twofold:
First, the gravity, prevalence, and insidiousness of the nisayon we face today. The challenges surrounding the internet are unprecedented; it is a gateway to the secular world, providing access—from the anonymity of our screens—to people and places that we would never dare go near in real life. It is a giant that is constantly advancing and adjusting, updating and upgrading, insinuating itself in every aspect of our lives.
Second was that the fact that we are still holding tightly to what is real, that so many of us are trading convenience, entertainment, and even a sense of belonging for a life of purity, is unbelievable. Anyone who makes the difficult decision to stand firm against the powerful riptides of today is a hero.
Let us take a look at some individuals and organizations that are on the front line of the battle against inappropriate technology use.
4G phones, which are rapidly replacing simpler, earlier versions of cell phones, are in certain ways similar to smartphones. If left unfiltered, both can provide access to the worst the world has to offer.
One recent solution is the Ani Chomah program, in which roshei yeshivah certify flip phone from kosher companies on which everything except the talking option blocked. These phones are approved for both bachurim and girls, though our leaders caution that it is better for young adults not to have their own cell phones. Generous sponsors are donating money to Ani Chomah so people can purchase the phones at a discounted price or trade in a less-safe device for free.
- In addition to a number of stores that sell kosher phones, kosher phone vending machines are going up in Lakewood and beyond. There are already three working Lakewood locations: one in The Willows onSeventh Street and Private Way, one in Westgate, and one in TAG. The idea is to make kosher phones easily accessible to everyone.
Mishor, under the hadrachah of Rav Elya Brudny, Rav Henoch Shachar, and Rav Uri Deutsch, was developed about four years ago to address an important technology-related issue. Rabbi Yitzchok Leizerson of Mishor explains, “About four years ago,
I realized that there was no one in the frum world who was dealing with teenagers who had internet-enabled devices. While inspiration and cognizance of the ills of internet were widespread, no organization was actually helping teens navigate the world of the web. After speaking with rabbanim, we launched Mishor. “We don’t help just anyone; we want to discourage high school kids from using smartphones altogether. It’s only with the recommendation of the teen’s rav, rebbi, or therapist that we go ahead and filter their device. Sometimes parents call us and explain that the grandparents bought an iPod Touch for the child, and they want us to filter it. We always refuse such requests. Our goal is not to enable kids to have internet access, it is to help those who, because of specific circumstances and
situations—and with the recommendation of a rav or therapist—do have the access. We want to provide them with the guidance and safety net they need.”
The team at Mishor has a unique understanding of teenagers, technology, and filters. They focus on connecting with their clients and on finding the best way to help each person with a unique and individualized plan.
“The process takes hours,” Rabbi Leizerson shares. “We meet with the child’s parents or mentor. We speak with the teen, learning about their needs and limitations, researching and crafting a filtering plan for them. We also try to see how much we can negotiate, how much they are willing to give up. We keep in touch with our clients; they come back for help with their devices and to adjust or update their filters. It’s so much more than a filter; it’s about the connection, the follow-up, the ongoing relationship. It’s about giving the teen the feeling that they are being heard, understood, and gently guided.
“Another aspect of what we do is raising awareness about the internet. We have a newsletter and presentations which we share with parents and rebbe’im. Our program helps adults understand the dangers out there so they can know what they are up against, make informed decisions, and have productive conversations with their teenagers. Examples of topics explored in our newsletters include filtered smartphones vs. flip phones and internet vs. browsers.
In a technology landscape that seems to be dominated by desperate attempts to dig trenches and build walls, a burst of positivity and empowerment is making waves through Hineini, TAG’s educational division, under the auspices of Rav Matisyahu Salomon and the Skulener Rebbe.
R’ Matisyahu Salomon once said, “When it comes to technology, takanos and asifos only help to a certain extent. To truly stand strong, we need to inspire our youth with proper chinuch and be mechazek their yiras Shamayim on a constant basis.”
Since its inception four years ago, thousands of girls in over 90 schools worldwide have found this chinuch and yiras Shamayim through Hineini.
At a recent European interschool Hineini gathering, Rabbi Moshe Drew, assistant director of TAG International, shared, “During the coronavirus, social distancing, quarantining, and mask-wearing laws were instituted to help flatten the curve. Understandably, these were temporary solutions to minimize the pandemic’s damages. The only real solution is acquiring immunity, so that one’s own body has the arsenal to protect itself and remain healthy. So too, when faced with technology challenges, rules and inspiration are important temporary solutions to mitigate our nisyonos and keep harm at bay, but the only real solution is proper chinuch, so that every individual has the proper mindset to understand what technology is, what our role is, and what Hashem expects of us.
This is the real solution. And this in Hineini.
Hineini’s basis is a rich high school program in which girls learn our gedolim’s perspectives on the proper relationship and attitude toward digital technology. It’s a complicated relationship. R’ Matisyahu once remarked, “You can’t live with it (the internet), and—to a certain extent—you can’t live without it.”
Hineini empowers girls to live in a rapidly evolving technological world without embracing the technology. It teaches them how to be reluctant digital users and how to use technology when needed, without using it as a source of entertainment and relaxation. It’s a delicate discussion. It’s an even more difficult mission. But scores of Hineini graduates have proven that it is attainable with proper education, ongoing focus, and dedicated commitment.
The in-class curriculum is taught by each school’s own teachers, who receive extensive training and coaching through Hineini. These interactive, hands-on, discussion-based lessons have become a favorite among thousands of students. In addition, Hineini’s school-wide extracurricular programs have transformed schools in a real way.
Hineini is not just a topic to be studied. Rather, it is a personal journey in which each participant is invited to open her mind and heart to da’as Torah on digital technology and accept the sacrifices it may bring. At the year’s end, Hineini hosts a siyum for 11th and 12th graders, celebrating the girls’ growth and commitment. As the girls gather in an arena together with thousands of others from schools across the spectrum who are all grappling—and winning battles—with the same technology challenges, they are infused with a sense of heightened strength and mission. And while they stand on different fronts, they are part of the same war—and that gives them the courage to commit to victory.
Far more than a curriculum or program, Hineini is a commitment to the future mothers of Klal Yisrael to continue to guide, strengthen, and inspire them as they pursue their holy tafkid. Long after graduation, “Hineini girls” continue to empower themselves and connect with like-minded young women through the daily updated Hineini hotline, the incredible “Heart of Hineni” daily lesson series, and the biannual Hineini Highpoints chizuk newsletter.
Rabbi Nechemiah Gottleib of the world-renowned Technology Awareness Group has a message to share with parents: “We have to recognize that the idea that technology is inherently a teenagers’ issue is flawed on many counts, and this faulty belief leads to problems. Technology is recognized, even by non-Jewish experts, as challenging for everyone. No one is saying, ‘I have my internet use completely under control; I am stronger than its pull.’
“Imagine we would call eating junk food a kid’s problem. A child may have weaker self-control or a bigger sweet tooth, but it isn’t primarily a child’s problem. Adults, too, struggle to maintain healthy diets. If the parents are treating themselves to all the cake and ice cream they want, how can we expect anything other than indulgence and even obesity from the child?”
In the same vein, the internet is not an issue exclusively for teens, it is an issue for everyone. The only way we can ensure that our kids and adolescents have a fighting chance against the web is if the adults are making the right choices in this area. If a bachur’s father has a smartphone, the boy may wonder why his father has a plaything that he cannot have. Why shouldn’t kids have more toys than adults? The parents need to be the role models, the standard setters. Children aren’t as strong as adults; they need to be guided and given the tools to develop willpower and restraint.
“The heart of the issue is really very simple: children of all ages are conflicted when it comes to technology use. They are getting mixed messages, and that can be very damaging. There are two basic kinds of families: those who use the internet in the home and those who do not, and each may be challenged in the area of chinuch.
“Parents who have no access to the internet are often not properly preparing their children for the challenges of the web. There is no conversation in their homes about this nisayon; it is as if it does not exist. Their level of abstinence is a beautiful thing; it’s an incredible thing. However, the children of such homes often look around and feel like everyone else has internet access. The frum mainstream publications mention the internet, tzedakah campaigns happen there, frum stores urge us to follow them there… These kids don’t know how to handle the challenge when it inevitably faces them. Although their parents are untouched by its influences, children—even those who were not exposed to it in the house—naturally struggle with it more.
“Then there are the families that are more permissive when it comes to technology. They’re people who otherwise scrupulously follow all the rules and standards of frum life, but suddenly, in this one aspect, the parents are not fully following da’as Torah. The inconsistency is disturbing to our youth. The kids know that this aspect doesn’t fit with the rest of their lives. They understand that the gedolim are imploring everyone to avoid the internet, and they sense that something is off.
“So, often parents on both sides of the technological divide are not showing their children a good example of safe internet use.”
So, what do we do? How do we prevail in this seemingly unwinnable war?
We have to be fully in touch with the technology nisayon, and we have to understand how massive the trial is. We have to accept the definition of gedolim: that this is “the biggest nisayon since bri’as ha’olam,” according to Rav Wosner, and, as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel said, “It is the last nisayon before Mashiach; it is the nisayon hador.”
If you completely abstain from internet use, you have to recognize what a challenge it is for your children. Don’t minimize it; don’t imagine it isn’t the challenge our gedolim tell us it is. If you embrace technology, accepting it as a part of your life, don’t fool yourself. It isn’t a tool you can simply use responsibly. It is something that has to be strictly controlled, filtered, and monitored. Every time we use it—especially for entertainment, for unnecessary things—we put ourselves in danger. We need to use technology as minimally as possible, and only when necessary.
At either end of the spectrum, never delude yourself; to pretend that the issue of technology is something that does not—or will not eventually—affect us, or that we are strong enough and won’t get ensnared in its net, is to deny the cautionary words of our gedolim: that this challenge is greater and more all-encompassing than any trial we have ever faced as a nation.
“Technology, as pervasive as it is today, is nothing compared to what is to come,” says Rabbi Gottlieb. “Smart fridges, smart homes…it’s going to be everywhere; that is where the world is headed. It will catch up with every single one of us, even if it hasn’t yet done so. And when it does, we need to be prepared to be moser nefesh,
to sacrifice whatever we need to, to do whatever it takes. We need to prepare our teens and children for this reality.
“Our leaders tell us that we can use filtered internet for business only. What if it becomes unfilterable? What if it becomes unavoidable? We need to be prepared. Our kids need practical role models to look up to—adults who understand their struggles and who themselves work to overcome battles in this area. We need to give over conscious chinuch, and we need to start with ourselves. We need to be aware of the dangers; we need to realize how easily accessible these things are. We need to constantly explain to our children why we don’t buy into the outside world; we need to help them create a sense of identity, of ‘Baruch Elokeinu shebaranu lichvodo.’ We need to prepare them and validate the enormity of the nisayon. We need to discuss with them that the biggest nisayon in recent history, shemiras Shabbos, required true mesiras nefesh; it required people to go hungry. Earlier, the Haskalah claimed the souls of 90 percent of our nation. The people who joined the movement were not trying to abandon Yiddishkeit; they wanted to make some changes, try some new things, allow a little bit of the outside world into their shuls and schools. Sadly, many of those who couldn’t rise to the challenge have non-Jewish grandchildren today. Discussing these previous nisyonos and methods we can use to fight the current one are excellent methods of fortifying ourselves and our loved ones from the winds of the tempest.”
Rabbi Avrohom Padawer of Smart Choices arranges and distributes written and audio material with a focus on chizuk for bachurim in regard to technology. The organization’s aim is to set the standard for bnei Torah when it comes to devices.
“Smart Choices is an organization focused on spreading awareness regarding the dangers of technology, accomplished primarily via distribution of CDs and MP3s with inspiring speeches as well as articles and posters on the topic,” says Rabbi Padawer. “Smart Choices is also involved in arranging asifos and speeches in Lakewood and beyond, educating parents and mechanchim regarding the perils of technological devices. People can call the Smart Choices hotline to hear various speeches, receive much-needed inspiration, and get tips on how to navigate the difficult nisayon of technology and internet use. I find that people do want to grow, they want to hear chizuk in this area and do the right thing—and that chizuk is available, so we try to put the two together.
“At one of our asifos, we arranged a kosher-phone sale on-site, and one of the participants was so inspired from the speeches that she stayed past midnight until her kosher phone was activated, so as not to go home with the non-approved phone she owned previously. Another time, I was approached by a boy who asked for a phone that looked different from nonkosher ones; he wanted it to be obvious, even from afar, that he did not have a nonkosher phone. This bachur took so much pride in his decision to stand firm against today’s nisyonons, it is truly an inspiration.”
During Pesach bein hazmanim, Rabbi Padawer helped organize an asifah for American bachurim preparing to go to Eretz Yisrael for yeshivah. The gathering was called for by the gedolim of America and Eretz Yisrael with the goal of explaining the importance of avoiding using cell phones—especially those with features other than talking—as well as laying down device guidelines for bachurim in Eretz Yisrael.
The first to address the crowd of thousands as well as many yeshivos on live hookups was Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel. The Rosh Yeshivah explained that, in reality, “any cellular phone—even a phone of the most kosher variety, even one that can only be used to call one’s mother—runs counter to the identity of a ben yeshivah,for a bachur should not have any pursuits other than Torah. A ben yeshivah’sfocus must only be on learning and growing. Although there are certain instances where a bachur might need a cell phone, even then, it must be a kosher, talk-only phone. It does not suffice to buy a phone that has a filter or block applied—it must be an original talk-only phone.”
“There is a growing trend in which bachurim believe that it is possible to be a ben Torah who holds a Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chaim Halevi in one hand and such a device in the other hand,” noted Rav Asher Arieli, rosh yeshivah of Mir Yerushalayim, representing the gedolei Eretz Yisrael. “This belief is a mistake; it is an attitude that we must fight with mesirus nefesh.A ben Torah should be entirely severed from all such connectivity. There can be no change in the time-honored tzurah of a ben Torah, and it is of utmost importance that we safeguard that tzurah tenaciously—for there is no loftier goal than that of developing into the sort of ben Torah that has graced our nation for generations.”
Rabbi Efraim Wachsman, the final speaker, defined the nisayon and outlined the necessary steps we must take to prevent the prevalence of the internet from destroying our nation. Rabbi Wachsman explained, “There’s a mistake that many people make regarding the threat of technology. They call it the nisayon hador. The truth is, it’s more than a nisayon, it’s a gezeirah. It is a gezeiras shmad, nothing less. It is no different from the era of Hellenism…the Haskalah movement…the rise of Communism… We are living through an extraordinary tekufah… A big focus here (at the asifah) is on bachurim going to learn in Eretz Yisrael. Of course, many are matzliach during their stay in Eretz Yisrael, but it’s not a secret that many are falling. Many bachurim find themselves there without an anchor, drunk with their first taste of a certain type of freedom. And so, a bachur who has yiras Shamayim makes a few small bad decisions, and by the time he comes home he is a shell of his former self. A person has to take pause and ask himself, ‘Why do I need this device? How much time and focus is it taking away from me? What will it do to my future, to my doros?’
“The roshei yeshivah are insisting that no bachur be accepted into yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael without a kabbalah in writing that he will not possess a phone that isn’t approved according to the standards of Eretz Yisrael.”
May our efforts and sacrifices—on a communal level and a personal level—bring bracha and sanctity into our lives.