How the Jewish community can support children and teens in the Digital Age

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On February 8, and intentionally coinciding with Safer Internet Day 2022, over 75 faith leaders from around the world, representing more than 20 faiths and denominations, sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking him to cancel Instagram Kids, a planned social media platform targeting children under the age of 13. Included in the list of signatories were 20 rabbis representing a variety of affiliations.

This letter was unusual not only for its interfaith tone and the concerted attempt by faith leaders to urge for corporate change, but also because, until now, most objections to Instagram Kids had centered on the physical and emotional harm to teens from early and excessive exposure to social media. In this letter, faith leaders ask Zuckerberg to consider something that until now had been largely under the radar but is no less disquieting – what happens to a child’s soul, a child’s heart, a child’s spirit, if the child is prematurely thrust into the largely adult, largely unsupervised world of social media?

The religious leaders voice their concern with the conflict between values, those that drive social media versus enduring and meaningful values that are common to all faiths. “[T]he social media struggle is one against presence, attention, and stillness,” the letter reads – like Shabbat, prayer, and Jewish mindfulness and meditation – casualties, they claim, of the “mass commodification of attention.” The faith leaders assert that social media use can undermine “the sort of unitive consciousness and empathetic understanding that spiritual paths promote,” as social media tends to silo us from others who are different rather than unite us through common ground. The signatories point to the spiritual threats from digital comparison that can stoke materialism and jealousy, obscuring the lesson that true wealth resides in appreciation for what we have, an ancient notion of contemporary relevance that is taught in Pirkei Avot.

The clear purpose of the letter is to urge an end to plans for an Instagram Kids social media platform, but as a volunteer who worked on this initiative, I believe that it promotes another, no-less-valuable agenda: a wake-up call to faith communities about the potential impact on the spiritual lives of teens (and younger kids) from heavy and/or early use of social media. Given the laundry list of known physical and emotional harms to teens, including those enumerated in the interfaith letter, it’s time the issue of teens’ spiritual well-being in the Digital Age ranked high on our agendas.

One way to gauge what impact social media has on our teens is by surveying the nuances of their Jewish lives, everything from belief in God to the frequency of spiritual experiences like prayer, gratitude, awe, wonder – or, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel beautifully expressed it, radical amazement. That will give us a broad sense of what Jewish teens are feeling and experiencing right now. But, in tandem, smaller Jewish cohorts – such as youth groups, day schools, synagogues, and other prayer spaces – can initiate opportunities for dialogue. Clergy, educators, and other religious and lay leaders can meet with teens and listen compassionately as our youth share their stories about living life at the intersection of both Jewish and social media values.

If we discern friction and tension between these values – which I expect we would – then we need to be prepared to respond thoughtfully. As a starting point, we can pay attention to the warnings from mental health experts and ensure that we consciously cultivate a culture of delay that discourages children from joining social media platforms like Instagram until at least high school. This isn’t impossible. Indeed, social media is not the default setting for all teens; in fact, some actively choose, for a variety of reasons, not to be on social media at all.

With this in mind, Jewish groups that routinely interact with teens can find ways to connect with them that communicate thoughtfulness and inclusiveness, by using alternatives to social media whenever possible. Parent and caregiver education on the potential challenges of social media should start early too, conversations that can take place through whatever may be their touchpoint with the Jewish community, whether school, camp, or synagogue. And we can introduce teens and children to the benefits of Jewish mindfulness and meditation. Throughout this education and outreach process, Jewish teens should be invited to participate, particularly by brainstorming ways they can support each other and their younger peers as they navigate their complex digital lives.

Beyond these options, what else can we do to help teens and younger children who are already on social media? Thankfully, we have one reliable, ancient-modern resource – Shabbat – that informs how and how often all of us, not just teens and kids, should take a break from the potentially crushing overwhelm of the digital world. Just as the Green Sabbath Project uses Shabbat to promote environmental change through granting the earth a weekly rest from our unrelenting toxic output, a weekly tech sabbatical or Tech Shabbat may be just as potent a solution when it comes to helping us retain our human, spiritual core in this Digital Age. Communities, cohorts, and families can host Tech Shabbat celebrations to coincide with our weekly Shabbat in the hopes of forging IRL interactions rather than mediated ones.

While Heschel wrote in The Sabbath about how our daily existence is an attempt to conquer physical space, today we find ourselves engaged in the added daily conquest of a vast, unending digital space – all the more reason for a weekly Shabbat to anchor ourselves to time, a wholly different dimension of existence. With Shabbat, humanity can take advantage of a weekly moment to rest and restore, a Torah gift of immense necessity today. It may make us feel uneasy to take a screen break one day every week, but it can with practice become a favored, healing habit that may inspire other, shorter digital tech respites throughout the rest of the week as well – in the same manner that Jews retain perennial hope that the spirit of our Shabbat celebrations each week will continue to inspire us in the days that follow.

The interfaith letter against Instagram Kids serves as both an urgent warning and a timely invitation for faith communities. We can ignore the possible impacts of social media on children’s developing spiritual selves at our own peril, or we can forge forward with a plan to hear from young people what they are experiencing, in the hopes that ideas may emerge for how we (and they) can help safeguard sacred space for their spiritual development. With future plans by Facebook/Meta for an all-encompassing, multisensory “metaverse” that will seek to draw us ever more completely into a fully-immersive digital world – including all the unexplored benefits and risks that implies – the need for the Jewish community to start thinking broadly and deeply about the impact of digital tech on our children’s spiritual selves must start now.

President Joe Biden cited “the harms of social media” to children during his State of the Union address earlier this month and declared that the time had come to “hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.” While the burden will be on Big Tech to remove those harms as part of a broad legislative agenda in the years ahead, I believe our faith communities have the power, creativity, and agility to do much to promote the well-being of children and teens in the meantime.

About the Author
Rinny Yourman is a children’s screen time activist, a parent of two teens, and a member of the Screen Time Action Network at Fairplay. In her writing she explores the intersection of children/families, digital media and Judaism.
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