It’s easy to get stuck on our phones — just finishing one call, one text, or checking email quickly as our children walk in the door or as we sit down to a family meal. Who hasn’t experienced the pull to our phones right after Shabbos or a minyan?
We live in a world that provides more opportunities to connect with others than ever before. Large geographically diverse families can share photos of a simchah, a cute joke or a remarkable sale on cucumbers with each other in real time. Our email boxes are full of messages from business associates, friends and family every day. Social media companies are booming, with one site reaching over two billion users, of which 239 million users each month are in North America. Time Magazine shared a U.N. report that of the world’s approximately 7 billion people, 6 billion have access to mobile phones and only 4.5 billion have access to working toilets.
While this trend is collected from the secular community, any honest and observant member of our community will see similar trends. Take a moment to honestly reflect on the number of internet-connected devices you currently have in your house. That number may surprise you – when I did that same thing I was surprised. Many frum homes now have multiple computers, laptops, tablets, phones and gaming systems, all of which are connected to the internet. Websites focused on providing news and information to the frum community are growing in number and use. Even organizations that have resisted developing websites now realize that this is a critical method of modern communication. We are all more connected than ever before and this trend is increasing at a remarkable rate.
The desire to be socially connected is very healthy. In fact, research indicates that healthy relationships are an essential component of well-being and health. There is plenty of evidence that strong relationships lead to a happy, healthy and long life. Conversely, being alone creates significant health risks that statistically are comparable to the risks associated with obesity, high blood pressure and even cigarette smoking.
A meta-analysis of 148 studies concluded that individuals who have strong social relationships are 50% less likely to die prematurely. In a different study, researchers looked closely at one hundred people who were completing stressful tasks. When these individuals thought about people with whom they had good relationships, they experienced a quicker recovery time, demonstrating significantly less stress. Those who thought about poor relationships experienced higher blood pressure and stress levels. This and other, similar research indicates that strong relationships contribute to health at any age.
Dr. Sheldon Cohen, psychologist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has conducted fascinating research in the field. When exposed to a virus, those who reported having strong relationships were half as likely to catch a common cold. An AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) study found similar results with a much older population and confirmed that loneliness is a significant predictor of poor health. This is a small sampling of the vast amounts of research linking strong relationships with health and happiness. Having a long, healthy and happy life is a critical value to our community, and I would like to believe that the deep interest we are experiencing in connecting through the internet and digital media is rooted in this deep and positive desire for a long and healthy life.
The sad reality is that the way we are connecting is having a reverse impact on our happiness and health. Despite the time spent on “connecting activities,” people are less happy, less healthy and less connected to the most important people in their lives. In a powerful article published in a September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, Dr. Jean Twenge shares that while our children are physically safer than ever before, they are also on the brink of a mental health crisis. She has been tracking societal trends over many years. In 2012, she noticed an abrupt increase in teen depression and suicide. After reflection, she linked this frightening change with another social change that took place in 2012: it was then that the proportion of Americans who owned smartphones surpassed the 50% mark. Dr. Twenge shared the results of the Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has asked 12th graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975, and since 1991 has also included 8th and 10th graders. Dr. Twenge summarizes, “The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness.” Another fascinating statistic she shares is that teens are spending less time socializing in person and have moved their social lives online. This change has caused the rate of homicide among teens to decline, and at the same time the rate of suicide to increase. Starting in 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate became higher than the teen homicide rate.
While these statistics were taken from the broader American community, it is hard not to see similar trends in our families. Dr. Eli Shapiro, who directs the Digital Citizenship Project, has begun collecting data on digital trends in our communities. In a sample of nearly 1,500 middle school students, he found that most of our kids use the internet regularly (93%), use email (75%), and sleep with a phone within reach at night (57%). While I have not seen statistics on digital use among adults who read Hamodia on a regular basis, it is not hard to guess that digital engagement is common and increasing. One way to gauge this phenomenon is to observe a carpool pickup line at frum schools and note how many parents are holding phones and engaged in digital connecting activities.
To think that the negative impact described by Dr. Twenge and others on ourselves, our children and our families is not similarly true in our communities is wishful thinking, but sadly not reality. Those involved in klal work see the sad state of many of our families. Depression, divorce, anxiety and other destructive forces are becoming commonplace. Drawing the same line Dr. Twenge does between the increase in digital usage and the decrease of emotional health in our communities is scary, but probably wise.
One of the many things that distinguishes our community from the wider population — and the fear these developments engender — is the great gift Hakadosh Baruch Hu has given us through the Torah. As each generation has faced myriad challenges to both our physical and spiritual well-being, we have been able to look to the Torah and our mesorah for direction
Reviewing the messages of the Seder brings into focus the antidote for this existential threat to the fabric of our families. The Yom Tov of Pesach and the Seder afford us an opportunity to strengthen the necessary and healthy connections we need to thrive — the connection between generations that bonds parents and children. Pesach has always been a time when families physically reunite. Family members travel far distances to spend the Seder together. It is on this night that the Torah commands parents to teach their children the lesson of freedom the Jewish People experienced with Yetzias Mitzrayim. On this night all fathers and mothers take time to teach, listen to and communicate with their children. The Seder is indeed replete with minhagim specifically aimed at engaging children in conversation and dialogue. The Haggadah even describes four types of children and how best to reach each child in his or her unique way.
The name of the text used for this important task is “Haggadah.” The root of the word is made up of the letters gimmel dalet. This root refers to the phrase “gomel dal,” to give to somebody lower than oneself. This indeed is the essence of this guidebook and its goals on this night: not to merely remember the experience for ourselves but to effectively share that experience with the next generation. We use this night to concretize the bridge between generations. This process, this focus, this attention that is showered on our children Pesach night has a great effect on them. By internalizing the cause-and-effect nature between genuinely engaging our children and instilling emunah in them, we have the antidote for the digital plague and the winning recipe for success with our children all year long.
Dr. David Pelcowitz, former head of pediatric psychology at NYU and current professor at Yeshiva University, emphasizes the findings of a study performed at Columbia University. This study found that the number of days a week a father ate dinner with his family is directly correlated to the amount of illegal substance abuse found in that family. In homes in which the father ate dinner daily with his family, substance abuse was significantly lower than in homes where the father did not eat dinner with his family. Every day of the week that the father was home lowered the number of drug incidents in the family. Children need parents, they need to be connected, and they need to be asked about their day and listened to. When they don’t get what they need, they struggle.
This article is not aimed to provide new insights into parenting. Like most good advice in life, the critical component of success is not only learning the insight but finding a way to put it into action. We know so much about what habits lead to healthy and long life. We are aware of the positive impact of regular exercise, family budgeting and even nightly flossing, and yet somehow we fail to incorporate this basic advice into our lives. While sitting at the Seder and engaging our children in conversation without any digital distraction (by either parent or child), let us reflect on this gift from Hakadosh Baruch Hu and the power of this experience for the entire family. The Seder provides a blueprint for the kind of engagement a healthy family needs on a regular basis. Every Yom Tov is an opportunity for reflection and change. Perhaps this Pesach we can add another dimension of freedom to our lives: the freedom to disconnect in order to connect truly.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield, Ed.D., is the Head of School at Yeshivah Torat Emet in Houston, Tex., and serves as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education.