Jonathan Muskat

Addiction to Smartphones: Self-Control Is the Key to Holiness

Recently, two major Apple investors wrote a letter to Apple asking it to deal with the problem of youth addiction to smartphones.  According to the letter, “The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10 and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking). 78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling addicted to their phones.”  Research has shown that heavy smartphone use can have a negative impact on several aspects of daily life:  loss of empathy and connection with others, loss of sleep, loss of focus, loss of the ability to do deep, meaningful work and loss of the ability to be fully present in our lives.

Managing smartphone addiction is all about developing and improving our self–control, a character trait that is so critical to successful living.  (When I speak of addiction, I speak of addiction colloquially, not addiction that meets criteria for needing medical treatment.)  There was a famous marshmallow test which was conducted at Stanford University in the late 1960s and early 1970s which presented children with the choice of receiving either one marshmallow now or waiting 15 minutes to receive two marshmallows.  Long term follow-up studies showed that children who patiently waited for the second marshmallow went on to have more successful marriages, careers and lives in general.  That being said, self-control is much more than simply being an instrument to achieve more sleep, meaningful communication, awareness and appreciation of the moment.  It allows us to transcend our humanity and our basic human instincts.

As we read the Torah portions dealing with our exodus from Egypt, we cannot help but contrast the path of Bnei Yisrael and that of Pharaoh.  In last week’s parsha, Elokim tells Moshe that He was known to the Patriarchs as Kel-Shakkai but the name YKVK (the “Tetragrammaton,” in which, due to reverence, I have substituted a K for an H), was not known to them.  Elokim is the God of nature and that is how man originally perceived God.  Then the Patriarchs perceived Him as Kel-Shakkai.  The Gemara in Chagiga 12a explains that this name means, “ani hu she’amarti l’olam dai,” or “I am He who said to the world enough.”  Elokim created and Kel-Shakkai practiced self-control and stopped creating.  Additionally, God expected the Patriarchs to practice this behavior.  Indeed, the first time that God calls Himself Kel-Shakkai is when He commands Avraham Avinu to engage in an act of self-control by circumcising himself.  Once we master this level of self-control then we are ready for a YKVK relationship, a relationship of God Who is beyond time and space and Who allows us to transcend our humanity.  In short, we are ready to transform ourselves into a nation of kedusha, a nation of holiness.

In fact, Rashi explains the verse kedoshim tihyu in Parshat Kedoshim as an obligation to separate ourselves from sin.  Why must we not do something to be holy? Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanatopsky explained that when we observe positive commandments, we create kedusha on objects.  When we give tzedakah, we sanctify the money and when we study Torah, we sanctify the words of Torah that emanate from our mouth. However, when we observe negative commandments, there is no object to sanctify; rather, we sanctify ourselves and prepare ourselves to experience YKVK.

In these Torah portions, we also read how failure to emulate Kel-Shakkai can have severe consequences.  Pharaoh is an individual who suffered from addiction.  He was addicted to his philosophy and behavior of subjugating and dehumanizing the Hebrews to the point where his addiction deprived him of his humanity.  He lost his free will, a basic difference between man and animal.  He became animalistic insofar as he could no longer change his mind to free Bnei Yisrael.

This is the challenge of self-control, of saying “dai” – enough.  If we are successful, then we can transcend our human instincts and achieve a level of sanctity, but if we are unsuccessful, then we can follow a path that can be so destructive that it may ultimately rob us of our very humanity.

When we train our children, it is so critical that this character trait of self-control be emphasized on the same level as praying with proper concentration, learning Torah and performing acts of chesed.  It is certainly more exciting to reward our children for doing something positive than for not doing something negative.  However, we need to realize that addiction to technology and failing the marshmallow test can  be harmful to our sanctified status and to our ability to experience YKVK as men and women of faith.  Therefore, we must start to think more creatively both as parents and as schools to constantly reinforce this critical character trait of self-control in the lives of our children.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.