Go Dark To See The Light: A Digital Strategy For Sanity

By Avraham Weissman

Interview With Dr. Eli Shapiro, LCSW

Virtually everyone in our community is grappling — whether directly or indirectly — with the question of how best to deal with the host of serious challenges posed by the dramatic changes in technology. In many communities, following the directives of Gedolei Yisrael, much emphasis is placed on seeking to ensure that children and teenagers do not have access to devices that are connected to the internet. Adults are urged to use it only for business or other non-entertainment purposes, and only with filters and other proper safeguards in place.

While it is the spiritual dangers technology poses that are of paramount concern for our community, the ever-increasing challenges it creates for day-to-day living are also present in the social, psychological and behavioral realms.

In the following interview with Dr. Eli Shapiro, some of these other aspects are explored.

You are a licensed clinical social worker [LCSW] with a doctorate in education. What made you get involved in issues regarding technology?

My work has predominantly been based in the area of social emotional functioning: how people’s emotional, social and communal experience impacts their day-to-day experience and overall existential satisfaction.

Early in my career, I focused on why some people have unhealthy relationships with mood-altering substances, understanding “the why” and helping them to maximize their potential. In an effort to engage in preventing addiction in adults, I started working with yeshivah students and, for completion of my master’s degree, wrote a thesis on substance abuse among adolescents in the yeshivah community. Around the same time, I was seeing a high degree of negative social phenomena like school-based bullying where, despite being taught the importance of mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro, yeshivah students were not necessarily being kind to one another. I was fortunate to find Dr. Rona Novick and her BRAVE bully prevention program which addressed these negative traits in the classroom.

After a number of years working with students on school-based bullying, and around the time of the release of the first iPhone, I began focusing on bullying that was occurring in the digital realm, commonly known as cyberbullying. The danger of cyberbullying appeared to be more profound than traditional school-based bullying, as the impact of a single event really cannot be measured, undone or even controlled. During my research on this form of online aggression, I was finding more and more evidence that digital technology was having a negative impact on a variety of areas, including social, psychological and behavioral functioning. As a result, with renowned educator Mrs. Temima Feldman, I developed The Digital Citizenship Project, with a goal of teaching responsible use of technology in order to maximize the benefits it has to offer by addressing its inherent social and emotional challenges.

It should be noted that the issues around technology extend well beyond the content of the internet, and helping shift the community paradigm has been part of The Digital Citizenship Project’s mission since its inception. B”H, over the past few years our program has been adopted by many schools and communities. Many international organizations, including Agudath Israel of America, Chabad, Consortium of Jewish Day Schools, Torah Umesorah, Yeshiva University, and more, have generously given us a platform to discuss these complex issues.

Tell us about The Digital Citizenship Project — in particular, your work in the corporate world. Why do companies turn to you in the first place?

Although it was initially started as a program to educate children through our curriculum, one of our most popular offerings has been our parent lecture, which focuses on managing both children’s technology as well as one’s own technology.

Our goal of maximizing what technology has to offer by understanding its challenges applies to the corporate world as well; in some ways, even more so. The corporate world has the same challenges in the social, psychological and behavioral realm, but also has some bottom-line fiscal implications as it relates to profitability, productivity, fiscal viability, branding, liability and more. We call the erosive impact that technology has on a corporation’s productivity, morale and public image “digital depreciation,” and it is certainly something that every business owner should be concerned about.

A 2014 study by salary.com found that 89 percent of survey respondents admitted to “wasting time” at work as a result of personal technology, with much of the time spent on the internet or social media. In total, employees spend about 233 million hours per month on social media sites.

But it’s not just time wasting; a company’s internal morale can be impacted by bad digital practices, as can their branding and liability, when employees are not sensitive to their tweets, posts, comments, etc., when communicating about their company or client base. In addition to clear workplace policies and filtering, educating employees about how technology impacts day-to-day functioning is critical in reducing digital depreciation.

On a side note, a recent study found that the mere presence of a cell phone reduces an individual’s cognitive ability. While the average millennial checks his or her phone more than 150 times a day, one doesn’t actually have to be using one’s device for it to have a negative impact on one’s ability to focus and function at peak ability; the device simply has to be there.

Let’s talk a little about how technology has changed our day-to-day lives. While it is often assumed that technology has made our lives easier and better — and this is true in some areas — it has also impacted us in harmful ways once thought unimaginable.

With the advent of smartphones, what was once a 9 to 5 workday has changed dramatically to become one with availability every waking hour. Many report taking smartphones with them to bed. Is this really good for businesses?

Technology is amazing and has presented us with wonderful opportunities in the areas of productivity, communication, access to information, and so much more. We are truly living in wonderful times, but we can also relate to what Charles Dickens wrote … : “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” As wonderful as technology is, it has created a “worst of times … age of foolishness” environment as well.

Numerous studies find a strong correlation between smartphone use and anxiety. The more “connected” one is to one’s digital devices, the higher the levels of anxiety and worry. We have all been there — when we forgot our phone somewhere and, after the initial panic, calm and tranquility came over us. Oftentimes we don’t realize how much anxiety our devices create for us until we don’t have them with us. While the harsh reality of a technology-created 24/6 workweek may require us to be connected to our devices, it does not mean that it’s not having a negative impact on us.

For many, workplace emails serve as a significant source of stress. One study found that when subjects [who were] limited to checking their emails three times a day were compared to those with no restrictions placed on them, their overall stress levels were lower and they rated higher on a happiness scale.

Not only does workplace stress impact job performance, but it is also considered responsible for approximately 6.5 percent (roughly $160 billion) of America’s health-care costs; employers end up footing much of that bill.

A recent French law known as the “right to disconnect” requires companies with 50 employees or more to have time frames where emails should not be sent between employees and employers. Other European countries have laws limiting managers from emailing or calling employees after work hours. Although such a policy is not realistic for many businesses and is certainly counterintuitive from a productivity standpoint, the underlying idea of reducing employee stress as it relates to technology is certainly something that should be on the radar of employers.

Are smartphones being used primarily for business or for entertainment?

The answer really is both — and more. The smartphone, for better or worse, has become our portable conduit to productivity, entertainment and social interaction. Any adult in business with a smartphone will use it to respond to emails and other forms of digital communication for both personal and professional reasons. They will also use it to get the latest news, sports scores and entertainment videos — and to find the location of the nearest minchah minyan and kosher restaurant. Individuals with more discipline, self-control and self-awareness will utilize their technology to maximize productivity, while those with less will likely have their productivity handicapped by their devices. There needs to be ongoing cheshbon and self-assessment whether one’s relationship with one’s device is healthy and productive or unhealthy and destructive.

The Digital Citizenship Project has been collecting data from yeshivah and Jewish Day School students across North America and has found a number of interesting statistics. The student’s equivalent to “business or entertainment” is “schoolwork versus non-schoolwork” and we have found that children report spending 50 percent to 100 percent more time using digital technology for non-school-related activities than for school-related activities. Although not completely surprising, it gives us a good indication of how kids are spending their time.

Additionally, we found differences between boys and girls. While boys tend to use the internet and digital technology for entertainment (games, videos, etc.), girls tend to use it more for social purposes and connecting with friends. These nuances are important in the assessment process of whether one’s relationship with technology is healthy or not, and what steps to take to improve functioning.

Is it true that some companies are actually limiting or banning smartphone use by some of their employees during working hours?

Very few companies have an outright ban on smartphone use. Most try to find a healthy balance meeting individual employee needs and protecting the company’s bottom line. For that reason, we see a trend in having clear guidelines, policies and expectations for the use of personal technology in the workplace.

Some yeshivos have a policy about Rebbeim owning smartphones, and certainly most educational institutions have policies about teachers (and students) using smartphones in the classroom or even in the building. Businesses tend to have restrictions built into their internal network, limiting web sites that are unrelated to the workplace environment. Often the corporate culture itself will limit the frequency with which people use their personal devices. Many companies will also reinforce policy and culture with both public and private reminders as well as disciplinary action when necessary.

One helpful technique that many businesses fail to adopt is employee education. Setting time aside to help employees understand how their devices impact their functioning as well as the pragmatic implications of posting information online, even during non-work hours, can go a long way in helping your workforce build digital engagement habits that are healthier for both the employee and the company.

How has technology affected interpersonal relationships? When the eyes of fathers and mothers are glued to their handheld devices right through dinner, how seriously does this impact their connection with their children?

One major area that we see negatively impacted by digital technology is our social experience. Digital technology and social media have increased the number of “friends” we have, but without a doubt, there is a diminished quality in our interpersonal relationships.

A study by Quantified Impressions found that adults make eye contact only 30 to 60 percent of the time during an average conversation, while research suggests that in order to form a meaningful connection, that number should be 60 to 70 percent. While we do spend time checking our devices during conversations, we have also been conditioned to have a frequent change of scene — making it increasingly difficult to stay in a conversation and make meaningful eye contact when external stimuli are present.

Some people have adopted the practice that when they go out to dinner with friends, they all put their cell phones in a pile in the middle of the table, and the first person to take his or her phone has to pay for dinner. At home, families can implement a “going dark for dinner” strategy, when there is a set time, dinner or otherwise, during which no one is using technology.

An interesting study out of UCLA measured children’s ability to read facial expressions and social cues and measured them again after spending five days in a technology-free camp environment. What they found was that after only five days of being without their devices, their ability to read facial expressions and social cues and formulate meaningful connections with peers markedly improved. This study not only tells us that digital technology is having a negative impact on our interpersonal relationships, but also teaches us that we can fix it by taking breaks from technology.

Creating tech-free time at home presents families with real opportunities to enhance their interpersonal connections. It doesn’t only have to be on Shabbos.

Is it causing shalom bayis issues?

Anytime you have something that serves as an intrusion in a relationship, it can contribute to shalom bayis issues. As mentioned, distraction and reduced capacity in the realm of interpersonal connectivity can take their toll on any relationship. It becomes particularly difficult when there are disparate philosophies or values on core areas of functioning in a marriage; as technology becomes more ubiquitous, couples may find this to be an issue. It most frequently manifests itself when there is disagreement as to whether one spouse or the other is spending too much time in front of a screen or when there is fundamental disagreement on how much technology to expose children to.

On the other hand, couples and families can use technology and screen time as a unifying factor. They set personal and family goals where they can work together, such as “no devices the first hour home” or “no devices an hour before going to sleep.”

While technology is an example of something that can cause shalom bayis issues, I believe that, like many other relationship issues, it’s more about the compatibility of the individuals themselves than the technology itself.

For many people — especially among the younger generation — texting has replaced verbal communication. How does this affect familial relationships and friendships?

I’m not quite sure texting has replaced verbal communication, but it certainly offers an alternative medium for communication that has both pros and cons. Texting and communication apps give us the opportunity to share ideas or messages quickly, efficiently, and with as many people as necessary, with one action. However, it also lacks the paraverbal features that make up effective communication: the tone, volume, intonation, body language, etc. Research suggests that it is the paraverbal piece that communicates our message and meaning and not the words themselves. Obviously, this is something that is lost in a digital message. In my community lectures I often note that we can have full conversations between washing Netilas Yadayim and making Hamotzi without saying a single actual word (“Uh? Nu!”). Emojis were developed to help convey nuance, but certainly aren’t a replacement for the benefits of actual face-to-face communication.

On a side note, one study found that using emojis in business communications can actually hurt you, as the study found that recipients of professional emails found smiley emojis to convey incompetence rather than warmth.

Ultimately, digital communications are a modern convenience, but are certainly not a replacement for face-to-face conversations. In the words of Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, “Advancements in communication have not been matched by the art of connectivity.”

At what point does usage of these devices cross over from being a distraction to an actual addiction?

Great question. There is currently no universally adopted definition of technology addiction. For example, I often get the question of how much screen time makes you an addict. While we do know that screen time has a number of negative correlates, we can’t identify a number that is too much screen time and if you go above that you are an addict. Someone who is a stock trader, or a computer programmer, or an air traffic controller, looks at a screen all day but is certainly not an addict. However, if we borrow from the substance abuse model, we would look to see whether one continues to engage in unhealthy technology habits despite experiencing consequences as a result of those habits and whether their technology engagement is interfering with their primary role obligations, which differ from person to person. If an individual is failing to complete work-related tasks as a result of technology distraction, irrespective of the content, or children are struggling in school as a result of technology engagement, it would be problematic and require intervention — even if we don’t define it as “addiction.”

Tell us about some of the problems you have come across in regard to the usage of these devices by youths and even children.

The Digital Citizenship Project has been running programming and collecting data from Jewish communities across the Unites States on technology ownership rates, attitudes and habits. As far as I know, we have the most comprehensive data collection and it includes communities in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota and California. The data includes yeshivah and day school students and parents and gives us an excellent picture of the landscape and issues we are facing with technology in the Jewish community.

Firstly, parents need to recognize that virtually no child does not potentially have access to internet-based technology. Even if your home is technology free, or your child doesn’t own a device, whether through friends, the library, or the device they bought at 7-Eleven that you don’t know about, they do potentially have access. This is why it is so important for parents to have an ongoing dialogue about what their expectations are when it comes to technology engagement, both at home or out of the house.

Our data indicate that 66 percent of middle-school-aged students personally own a smartphone or internet-capable device, yet only 30 percent of them report having filters or other parental-control devices activated. Over 90 percent reported having access to internet-capable devices at home, with similar rates of filters or parental controls activated. I don’t want to bore with a whole slew of statistics, but we do find a significant amount of discrepancy between what parents and students report about set rules and guidelines in the house as well as whether parents speak with their children about online safety.

Perhaps most significant is nearly 57 percent of middle schoolers report having been “disturbed” by images or videos they have seen online. This is a really important finding, since kids are saying that technology is creating psychological and emotional stress for them. Additionally, only about 22 percent of parents state that their children have been disturbed by online content. So there is much work to be done in building communication between parents and children around technology engagement.

This is all in addition to the other challenges that digital technology presents in the social and behavioral realm, like the 83 percent of kids who report staying up late as a result of their technology; plagiarism; lying about one’s age; cyberbullying; and the overall disinhibition, impulsivity and compulsivity that seem to be inherent challenges of technology. The argument could certainly be made that we would be better off socially, psychologically and behaviorally by avoiding technology altogether, but for families and communities where this is not a viable option, understanding how technology impacts and taking the steps to most effectively manage it is the best solution.

There have been reports of otherwise Shabbos-observant teens engaging in social networking and texting on Shabbos. How real is this problem and to what do you attribute it?

Yes. There was a 2012 study by Dr. David Pelcovitz that found that 18 percent of survey respondents reported texting on Shabbos or engaging in what they termed “half Shabbos.” That was in 2012. I have to imagine that the number is higher today as the rate of teen cell phone ownership has increased. While the study population was of students attending Modern Orthodox day schools, when I have spoken in yeshivah communities I have been informed that it seems to be an issue there as well.

Both Dr. Pelcovitz’s study and published research find a strong connection between the compulsion to text and anxiety. More specifically, the research identifies social anxiety as a significant contributor to texting “addiction.” While in the past, children would have to learn to deal with their social anxieties and learn to communicate despite some emotional discomfort, texting provides a way to do that without the inhibitions of real face-to-face conversations.

It is remarkable to think that the drive to text on Shabbos is so strong that individuals whose espoused values are to be shomrei Torah umitzvos have such difficulty refraining from this. It really underscores how psychologically dependent individuals can become on their technology and how unhealthy their relationship with technology can get. In the mental health field we often use “moving away from communal norms” as the barometer for dysfunctional behavior and it would seem that this falls into that category.

Any final thoughts?

Thank you for your time in helping us share this important message. We are living in the age of technology, whether we like it or not; and whether we choose to embrace technology or push back against it, its impact on our functioning is still the same. Currently, as a community, we have focused on the importance of filters, yet only about 30 percent of middle-schoolers have them and an even lower percentage of high-school students and adults.

But filters in and of themselves are ineffective in changing behavior. They are important, like a seatbelt in a car, but they don’t teach you how to drive responsibly. Our research, as well as other published research, did not find that filters in and of themselves were effective in promoting responsible technology use. However, we did find that educating children, having parents speak with their children about responsible technology use, having clear rules and guidelines at home, and parents modeling good digital habits had the most significant impact.

While we, as professionals, struggle in managing our own technology habits, and businesses search for that perfect balance to maximize digital appreciation and minimize digital depreciation, we are currently raising and educating the next generation of workforce participants for whom, as hard as it is to imagine, technology will play an even more prominent role in their daily personal and professional lives. Parenting today includes teaching our children to navigate an increasingly complex world, and the issues around digital technology engagement extend far beyond the content available on the internet. Families need to have an ongoing assessment of whether technology is serving as an enhancement to their functioning or an intrusion that is having a negative impact on their existential experience. By engaging in more thoughtful and deliberative practices with our technology, we can benefit from all that it has to offer and raise children to become future ready adults who engage in positive digital citizenship.

(Source: Features Section, Sukkos edition page 14)