Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Facebook, Mental Health and Parental Responsibility

We are all simply exhausted.  We somehow endured a three-week holiday marathon, alternating from Shabbat to weekday to Yom Tov to weekday in a manner that was exhausting for Rabbis who had to prepare multiple shiurim and drashot, for those who had to work overtime to make up for all the missed work days and for those who had to cook so many Shabbat and Yom Tov meals, very often for extended family and guests.  Make no mistake about it.  At times, it can be exhausting to be an orthodox Jew and the challenge for us is to constantly not allow our exhaustion to deter us from our core mission, which has been the Chagei Tishrei up until now.

Our exhaustion can manifest itself in other ways, too.  This past week the identity of the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, was revealed.  She gathered documents that formed the foundation of the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series that asserted that Facebook leadership was aware that some of its platforms like Instagram were harmful to the mental health of a sizable percentage of teens, and yet the leadership ignored these studies.  The report also asserted that Facebook doesn’t do enough to tackle the spread of misinformation and harmful content and that its leadership put profits ahead of its civic responsibilities towards its users.  We all hope that these investigations result in social media platforms that prove to be safe for our children.

Even though there may continue to be debates about what role technology companies and the government should play in protecting children from inappropriate online content, a recent pew study found that an overwhelming majority of parents (93%) say that parents and guardians have a lot of responsibility to protect children from inappropriate online content.

Parents understand their responsibility, but in practice, a recent pew study found that only 52% of parents at least sometimes use parental controls to restrict which sites their teen can access and less than 60% of parents at least sometimes check which websites their teen visits or look through their teen’s cellphone call logs or messages.  I would argue that taking these steps would certainly go a long way towards protecting our children from inappropriate online content.  However, as mentioned, whereas over 90% of parents realize it’s primarily their responsibility to do so, in practice less than 60% of them take significant steps to do so.

I think one of the reasons for this discrepancy is that parents are simply exhausted.  It is exhausting raising children, and when our young children become teenagers and develop their own thoughts and opinions, which is a healthy development, they naturally will oppose many of the things that we expect of them, thinking they know better.  And then at some point some parents outsource much of their parental responsibility to the Yeshiva day schools, reasoning that they pay top dollar for their child’s Yeshiva day school education.  If their child is not religiously motivated, then these parents think that it is the school’s fault, when in reality, the parents have an exhausting job of not only paying for their child’s Yeshiva day school education, but also for supplementing their child’s formal education with consistent messages in the home.  Similarly, some parents may be too tired to constantly fight with their children to limit what they can and cannot watch on their devices, and they rely on the Facebook’s of the world or their teen’s best judgment to limit their children’s exposure to their devices.

At the end of the day, as parents we cannot allow our exhaustion to deter us from our core mission, which is to raise sons and daughters who are Bnei Torah.  And there are two different paths to educate our children – one is through our authority and one is through our relationship with them.  Until our child develops his or her own identity as a teenager, we educate our children through our authority and they generally listen. However, once a child develops a mind of his or her own, he or she will not necessarily bend to our authority, and the primary way that our child will listen to us is through our relationship with him or her.  This is known as the mitzvah of tochacha.  The Gemara tells us that very few people know how to effectively rebuke others today, but parents who have developed a loving relationship with their teenage child have the best chance of achieving this goal.  If our child sees that we are passionate about certain values, if we demonstrate love for our children and if we have an open and honest relationship with our children about our values, then we have a better chance at being able to educate them through disciplined guidance.  So, yes, let us hope and pray that the government and the technology companies do what they can to protect the mental health and values of our children as they use various social media platforms, but let us work harder so that we close the gap between those parents who believe that we have a responsibility to monitor our children’s online content, and those parents who actually do.

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