It was at a shiva minyan I was at about 2 weeks ago where a young man arrived with his son just a few minutes before the service was about to start. The little boy was I would guess around 3 years old, and he had the moving energy of a child that age, what we have for a long time called in Yiddish ‘spielkes.’ As I finished putting on my tallit and tefillin the young father and his son sat on a couch right next to my chair. And I figured to myself, should be an entertaining minyan!
But just as the davening started, there was an almost magical transformation that came over the little boy. His father took out a little set of headphones, plugged them into his phone, put the headphones over the boys ears, and put the phone into the boys hands. The little boy leaned back and started playing what I guess was a game on his phone, and a look came over his face that was almost blissful, his whole body relaxed, and for the next 45 minutes the only parts of that boy that moved were his little finders over the phone screen, and his little eyes darting back and forth as they tracked the movements of the game he was playing. And I watched him off and on as the service progressed, and it was almost like he wasn’t even physically in the room with us anymore. As far as he was concerned he wasn’t at a service, there weren’t people there, I don’t even think he would have cared if his father got up an left – he was in his own place, almost his own world, that was created by the screen he held in his hands.
That little boy is in good company these days. Current statistics tell us that our children – ages 5-16 – spend an average of 6.5 hours a day staring at screens, whether phone, computer, tablet, or TV. That means that more than a third, and for some children close to a half of their waking time, is spent looking at digital information, and not spent looking at a book, the world around them, trees, the rain, the mountains, or another human face. And we are now starting to understand that this has an impact on the way young people think, interact, and understand one another and the world around them. So what will that little boy at the minyan be like in ten years? How will his life, and even his brain, his intelligence, be affected by growing up with that screen in his hand?
As results begin rolling in from studies that researchers have conducted over the last 20 years, early indications are disturbing. Just over the last couple of weeks Sherry Turkle, a Technology Professor at MIT, published a new book called ‘Reclaiming Conversation, the Power of Talk in the Digital Age.’ She argues that the constant use of smart phones and the excessive screen time young people are exposed to have already diminished their skills in terms of face to face communication and conversation. It isn’t only talking, which involves both the ability to say what you want to say, but also to hear what the other person is saying. It is also being able to read non-verbal cues, like posture and expression, what it means when a person crosses their arms during a conversation, or turns to the side, or steps back, or raises an eyebrow or draws in a deep breath. And young people today have a reduced sensitivity to those kinds of cues. And Turkle’s hypothesis about this is that its come about because these young people have spent so much time looking at their screens that they’ve missed hours and hours of “training time,” which is the time you spend in face to face conversation and interaction.
Other researchers have found that as technology use has gone up, empathy levels in young people have gone down. It is harder for young folk today to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to imagine how someone else feels, and to understand how someone else might see an issue if it doesn’t agree with their own view. The interactions we have via technology are not nuanced. Texting, FB messaging, Instagraming, even emailing – these are communication tools that are meant to convey short bursts of information, and they do that fairly well. But it is almost impossible to have a conversation of depth and feeling in these formats. And since people are using them so often, they are having less contact with feeling, they are having fewer and fewer chances to talk through a subject with another person, to pick it apart, to play ideas off against each other, to test thoughts and let them change over time.
All of that being said, there is some good news that the research is showing. The negative changes that they’ve identified seem to be reversible, and in a fairly short period of time. Young people who spent as few as 5 days at a device free camp showed an increase in their conversational skills and their ability to identify non-verbal communication cues. The same thing with empathy. Just a couple of weeks away from the screen helped young people discover – or perhaps re-discover – their sense of empathy for others.
The question of course is how can we carve out time for them to be away from their screens? One of the laws of building a sukkah is that you are supposed to be able to see at least a few of the brighter stars through the branches that make the roof of the sukkah. But I can tell you that that child at the minyan sitting on the couch would never see the stars, because that child will never look up as long as the phone is in his hand. In the Bible there is a phrase that occurs many times – וישא עיניו וירא – which is generally translated as he looked, or he saw. But a literal translation would be this: he lifted up his eyes, and he saw. And that is our challenge – how can we get them to lift up their eyes?
And there are two answers I would like to suggest today, neither particularly easy to implement. And the first has to do with changing not the behavior of the children, but instead the behavior of the people they are modeling their behavior from – and my friends, we are those people. From the time they are babies our children watch us constantly talk on our phones while we drive, hold our phones and tablets, constantly checking them, while we sit and watch TV, text while we eat dinner or are at their games or out with friends. I don’t know what the amount of time is that adults spend staring at their own screens, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t much different that the statistic for their children. So in many respects, the children are just doing what we’re doing, and until we change our own behavior, and put down our own devices, it is unlikely our children will.
The second solution is a bit simpler, but difficult nonetheless, and it is of course Shabbat. What if you could carve out 24 hours a week, every week, where you AND your children did not spend any time staring at a screen? I know that sounds impossible – almost like a pipe dream – but what we are starting to understand more and more is that that dream can bring great benefits to our children and grandchildren, and to us as well. Maybe it is time to figure out a way to make that dream a reality –