Shaking the Walls

The deleterious effects of social media continue to be a prominent topic in national news coverage. Recently, around the time Hamodia published an interview on the addictive threat of social media, The Wall Street Journal ran an article highlighting how common it has become for otherwise healthy people from stable backgrounds to find themselves ensnared in the digital world in ways that ruin the rest of their lives.

This week, Hamodia takes a look at how social media use (most prominently WhatsApp and Instagram) have affected shalom bayis issues. The following are responses from three prominent marriage counselors: Yechiel Shmuel Rosenberg, who is based in New Square and sees clients in Boro Park and Lakewood as well; Shlomie Ehrlich, who maintains a practice in Monsey; and Mordechai Berman, whose practice is in Lakewood.

To what extent has social media led to an increase in shalom bayis problems?

Yechiel Shmuel Rosenberg: There’s no question that it’s led to an increase. The clientele that I deal with tends to be a frummer crowd and in most of the cases I deal with, their official identity is that they don’t have a Smartphone or use social media at all. Now, generally that’s a wonderful thing, because most of them really do not have it and whatever problems they are coming to me for are not related to technology.

At the same time, I have had many cases where either the husband or wife did have a Smartphone, which in a way caused even more severe problems than you might see by people for whom it was more expected. They got much more pulled into the world of social media and they are more susceptible to falling into various levels of addiction.

Shlomie Erlich: I think it’s accurate to say that 50% of the shalom bayis problems I deal with have something to do with technology.

A lot of it has to do with distraction, missing the moment that’s important to your husband or wife. Shalom bayis is rooted in a very deep relationship and there are moments which might not be a long amount of time, but if they are missed, the relationship is weakened and sometimes hurt. It’s small things, like a wife looking in the husband’s direction and hoping to make eye contact with him or wanting him to see when the baby did something cute. A man walks into the room and wants his wife to look up at him and realize he’s there, these types of things.

They sound minor, but if the spouse is looking at their phone and misses them, it hurts the couple’s emotional connection, and you don’t get those moments back.

Mordechai Berman: Most shalom bayis problems are rooted in certain common stumbling blocks, but in many cases social media exacerbates these issues.

For example, it’s not an uncommon problem for a couple to have friction because one spouse feels disillusioned by what they thought their marriage would look like. Let’s say a wife pictured that her marriage would look a certain way and is disappointed by her reality. If she has Instagram, she is looking at other people’s lives—that feeds into those issues. People aren’t sharing the reality of their lives there, what they are sending out is the false rosy image of their lives, but for that disappointed wife, it raises an unrealistic bar that she’s now using to measure her own happiness with her marriage.

Social media companies are driven by advertising money, which is based on making people want things that are not always attainable for them. Especially when there is not enough money in the house, which, under any circumstances, can be a source of stress on a marriage, this exacerbates the problems.

Have you seen significant problems arising from one spouse becoming exposed to lower standards through social media while the other spouse’s sensibilities remain what they had been previously?

Yechiel Shmuel Rosenberg: I had a case where the understanding of this couple going into the marriage was that neither of them would have a Smartphone. Very quickly though, the husband realized that his new wife did have one. She said that she needed it for work, but the fact was that she was busy day and night with clips, and she ended up getting and sending things that were very inappropriate.

The husband was no extremist, he was a very normal person, but he felt like his wife was living in a world that had completely different standards than what he lived by, and different standards of Yiddishkeit from what he thought their home would be based on. She started to be more lenient in certain areas which were not the norms in their families. There were other factors too that caused problems in the marriage, but because she had a support network in her social media world for whom what she was doing was considered normal, she felt that what she was doing should be considered normal by her husband too.

As you can imagine, this created a very difficult situation between them. He was uncomfortable with her, and she felt that he didn’t trust her. It broke the basic trust that has to exist between a husband and wife.

Shlomie Ehrlich

Shlomie Erlich: A husband and wife have to build their own malchus and part of that is building a wall around their home. What comes into the home should be what they choose to let in. When those walls get breached by outsiders and other influences, it’s very painful for the relationship. What being connected to groups and platforms can do if you don’t have careful gedarim is rip down those walls. The husband or wife can look around five or 10 years later and see that their home is in a different world than when they built it.

Mordechai Berman: I’ve definitely had cases where the husband is in kollel and the wife gets connected to social media and brings things into their lives that they did not think were going to be a part of their home when they got married. It can happen the other way also, but that kind of scenario can make the couple feel very disconnected and can create a lot of tension.

How does social media use affect a couple’s ability to communicate with each other and is it common that one spouse gets insulted from feeling that the husband or wife is more interested in their phone and groups than in them?

Yechiel Shmuel Rosenberg: It seems to me that, in general, social media and phone addiction affects women differently than men. For a woman it has more to do with connecting to people and then if it connects her to the wrong people that can be a very big problem.

For a man, he can get addicted to his phone to a degree that he’s just not there for his wife.

He’s busy sending and reading messages. She can be talking to him and he’ll smile and she won’t be sure if he’s smiling about what she said or about a joke he just read. He can really forget about his wife.

Shlomie Erlich: I tell couples not to text each other unless it’s a list or something like that. If they have something to say to each other, they should pick up the phone. Written words are very dry and can easily be misunderstood, but a voice has affection and communicates the spouse’s real emotions.

I’m not encouraging anybody to get WhatsApp who doesn’t have it, but for those who do, they have to learn how to use it responsibly. There are responsible ways to use it and many people are able to manage it, but people should know the pitfalls and that so many marriages have been hurt by them.

We have to realize that these challenges are not going away and for those who use these forums, they have to learn how to use them in a way that minimizes the negative effect on their lives. If people use WhatsApp to communicate in business, they have to know that they need to be able to communicate in a totally different way at home with their wife and kids.

Technology is still relatively new, and we are still learning a lot about what the ground rules should be.

Mordechai Berman

Mordechai Berman: I’ve heard many times that couples feel their spouse is absorbed in their phone. Wives feel like their husband is more married to his device than to her and that it’s a challenge to get his attention for what she needs or for what their children need.

When you hear about this issue from men, it tends to be more focused on a feeling that their wife’s interests have changed. It’s not that you can’t get their attention, but that they become more interested in shopping and chatting with whoever is on her groups.

Have you seen that social media use and the nature of communication that takes place on it impedes a couple’s ability to build the deep relationship needed for a strong healthy marriage?

Yechiel Shmuel Rosenberg: From the cases I have seen, it seems that a lot of what social media use does is that it takes away the eidelkeit that a person should naturally have. Tznius, for example, is something that should come naturally, especially to a woman, but these platforms are designed to take away its value. It takes positive qualities that most people have naturally, and cuts them out or at least dulls them.

What we’ve all seen is that, more often than not, after a while a person who has a Smartphone becomes different. Different things become normalized to them. It’s easier for them to send or read a joke that may not be terrible, but that is certainly in what would have been a gray area for them before.

The standards in a lot of areas and even words that we use in our community have changed a lot over the last five years or so, and I think it’s hard to deny that this has a lot to do with it.

Another angle of this is that, by nature, women have a more black and white way of looking at halachos and guidelines and Hashem made them that way by design. A man is more given to nuance and to risk. In the technology arena, sometimes it leads to conflicts, because the whole subject has to do with guidelines.

Let’s say a man has a legitimate reason why he needs a certain device for a given period of time. The wife will probably understand this need, but while the husband might feel more comfortable using the opportunity to push the envelope a bit and also order something he needs on Amazon, that might seem like a real aveirah to the wife. She might start [harassing] him about it and it leads to tension.

I had a few such cases, and they are very difficult to deal with, especially if the new use becomes a regular thing to the husband. On the one hand, he has an understandable complaint, that he doesn’t want his wife to be his mashgiach, but at the same time, her complaint is correct that this was something they both decided they did not want as part of their lives.

Shlomie Erlich: It has a negative effect on the household when we send out pictures of our lives to others. When my baby smiles it’s part of my private life, but if a husband or wife decide to snap a picture and share it with the world, what remains that’s special for the two of them? They need to cherish those parts of their lives and keeping them to themselves is what strengthens their relationship.

There are a lot of people, unfortunately, who have had their values corrupted by this way of thinking and to them, even to explain that sharing your life with the world is not an “eidel” thing to do doesn’t work, because that word has lost its meaning to them. What we mean by eidelkeit is based on the feeling that our homes and our lives are sacred chambers.

We are taught the value and beauty of tznius, but the secular world today is fixated on tearing down every wall that exists. These people never felt the immense pleasure of building a marriage and a family protected by the guardrails of kedushah and tznius, but those values are very much under attack by the cultures that social media breeds.

We have to remember that our homes and our marriages are holy places and they’re worth fighting to protect.

Mordechai Berman: There is a simple fact that many shalom bayis problems come down to one spouse saying something hurtful to the other. Women especially can be very hurt by words.

Social media trains people to act, and share their thoughts, impulsively. The whole mentality of it is to post your first reaction to something. That breakdown of a person’s self-control and thinking less before you say something can have very bad results in a marriage and lead to a lot more hurtful words being said.

A marriage naturally has ups and downs, but any way you look at it, social media has enormous potential to exacerbate the downs. Shalom bayis problems were there before social media and they will be found in homes that don’t have it. But staying away from it can do a lot toward keeping your marriage healthier.

 

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At Home With Absentee Parents

The effects of social media and overuse of mobile phones is not a new topic. While the problem is multifaceted and quickly evolving, much of its focus is on the bad habits formed by its users.

In most mosdos HaTorah, while the use of social media platforms is very rare and, in many quarters, unheard of among students themselves, mechanchim said the impact of parents who are overly tied to their phones on their children’s learning and development is undeniable.

“A lot of parents are very busy with their phones at home and they’re not there for their children,” said Rabbi Asher Sabo, Menahel of Torah Vodaath. “There’s a problem in the world of absentee parents who are somewhere else even when they’re home, and a child who doesn’t have parents that he feels are there for him is very different from one who does.”

Rabbi Sabo was quick to add that among the majority of his parent body he had seen the positive side of this equation, but that the exceptions and feedback from mechanchim from around the country corroborated the breadth and depth of the problem.

 

Rabbi Dovid Morgenstern, a Menahel of Darchei Torah of Far Rockaway’s elementary school and Director of Torah Umesorah’s Mashgiach program, said that children easily pick up on the amount of attention parents give them.

“When a phone is out, even if it’s turned over, the parent is essentially saying, ‘I’m not here with you, because if somebody else calls or sends a message, that is more important than you.’ That’s very hurtful and it takes away from the connection and love our kids deserve and need to feel,” he said.

“We’re raising a generation of children who can’t focus,” said Rabbi Asher Lederer, Menahel of Yeshivah Ketanah of Lakewood. “I’ve met with some of these parents, and it doesn’t take long to see where it comes from if you have a mother or father who can’t keep themselves from checking their phone during a 15-minute meeting.”

Rabbi Lederer said that while there had always been children who struggled to concentrate in class, the numbers had markedly risen and that there seemed to be a strong correlation to homes with heavy smartphone use.

Rabbi Sabo concurred that dipping concentration spans had definitely had an impact on the level of learning in classrooms, but added that effects go beyond scholastics.

“There are many more children who are angry and depressed than we had 15 years ago,” he said. “We’re finding more children with social issues, kids who don’t know how to make friends, and it’s partly because parents are busy with their phones and not talking to their kids enough.”

A related problem on the rise, Rabbi Sabo said, was children with language disorders.

“They’re missing wordage and are not sure how to express themselves,” he said. “That was much less of a problem when more mommies spent time sitting and reading to their kids.”

In addition to problems mechanchem feel are tied to the amount of time and attention parents give to their phones, they said that content sent on social media platforms and mothers’ and fathers’ interest in it, has changed values and attitudes among many of their children.

“If the first thing you do when you make something for Shabbos is to shoot it out on your phone, it might not seem like a big deal to you, but the child loses his value for tznius, the basic value of your life being private,” he said.

Rabbi Sabo said that the plethora of clips, jokes, and the like on social media groups have downgraded the seriousness about achievement in Torah and in school in general in many homes.

“Kids are learning that the silly joke or picture on your phone is what’s important in life,” he said. “These kids have less drive to learn because what they’re seeing at home is that life is about a barrel of fun; they’re not getting the push from their parents that they used to, and the expectations keep getting lower.”

Rabbi Morgenstern said that while challenges abound, parents should not underestimate the positive impact they can have on their children by using technology responsibly.

“There’s a tremendous benefit to kids who see parents being as careful as they can with technology. Children see that you are taking this seriously and that it’s important for you to stay away from wasting time and from lashon hara,” he said. “When parents model these things, it can have a great effect.”