Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Unplug, Look Up, Stay Centered

There’s lots of talk among educators today about the role that social media is playing in our students’ lives, but whether you’re a parent, child, educator, student, or just any human being on this planet with a reasonable WiFi connection, you’re probably a victim of social media, too.

By victim, I mean that you’re probably abusing social media in some form, but you also might be an actual victim of the internet, someone who’s experienced bullying or meanness there, or, as in the case of a friend I spoke to recently who owns her own business, shady behavior from a competitor who tried to harm your enterprise.

I’ve attended meetings with educators where we’ve tried to come up with solutions for our children’s tech addiction, but doing so has made me more cognizant of the ways we all need to modify our behavior. As a society we’re only beginning to grapple with the results of our tech-centered lives, so I thought I’d weigh in with my thoughts as I try to decrease my own social media use and encourage my students to do the same.

The dark recesses of the web work well when they prey on our fears and anxieties. They take our bogeymen and enlarge them, making them into monsters we feel we have to slay in real life. Consider an extreme and horrific example, the terrorist who attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Goaded by and given a platform on the internet, he succumbed to his fears of a “migrant caravan,” railing against HIAS, an organization that aids refugees and Jews, whom he hates and 11 of whom he then managed to kill.

While most of us, of course, don’t succumb to hatred in such grotesque ways, the terrorists who are inspired by the web’s pathologies do make me wonder about the effect the internet has on even those of us who are more well-balanced. I’ve been thinking particularly about Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, “The Dark Knight.” The movie seems prophetic, as it imagines Gotham under the spell of fear-inducing drugs, causing its inhabitants to wander in a solipsistic haze where everyone’s worst nightmares engulf them.

I sometimes feel like social media has that effect on all of us. We’re all turning on each other, pointing accusatory fingers at our enemies, real and perceived, and ratcheting up the threats that they represent. I don’t mean to say that some people aren’t to be feared and stopped, but the Joker understands well that the best way to control people is to turn their fears and anxieties against them.

The accumulation of hate-filled incidents on and fueled by social media has made me reconsider my own use of it, making me more aware of how I feel after I scroll through my Twitter or Facebook feeds. Often it’s not good. Even if people aren’t hate-filled, they’re often very negative and they can suck you into the chaotic whirlwind of their emotions, so you all start feeding off of each other and escalating negativity, instead of calming it down. Just as the Joker predicted.

I don’t know exactly how our children perceive the platforms. They don’t remember a time when they didn’t have them, so it may be less pernicious to them. I don’t know. What I do spend a lot of time doing with them is gently encouraging them to remove themselves from the web, particularly from video games, which they perceive as social encounters because they “play the games together.” Nevertheless, as some of you may may be able to attest, talking to a child while they’re on their device is like trying to make contact with someone who is stuck down a deep well.

And what’s scary about trying to communicate with that person is that they often react negatively when you do manage to pierce the tech bubble into which they’ve been sucked. I’ve had experiences where I’ve asked a student to get off their device and they have been totally unresponsive. When I’ve reached out to touch the device, the student reacted angrily, as if they’d been assaulted. The encounters reminded me of trying to get between an addict and their drug and again made me mindful of my own behaviors, of the times when my own children made fun of me because I was too engrossed in my phone, texting, or tweeting or engaging in whatever nonsensical and unimportant goings-on the internet was convincing me were crucial.

So what’s the solution?

Becoming more aware of my own behaviors has caused me to re-engage with the world in healthier ways. Instead of feeding online hate, I put down my phone and joined Salaam Shalom Sisterhood, an interfaith group where Muslim and Jewish women meet and share our experiences, connecting over our commonalities as women, Americans, and people of faith. Instead of scrolling endlessly through pictures of other people’s vacations and lives, I close my Facebook app and go on hikes or walks, spend extra time exercising, or pick up one of the many books I have stacked on my night table. And why tweet when you can phone an old friend or have coffee with someone you haven’t seen in a while? In short, I’m returning to that state I was in before the smartphone entered my life, and having experiences IRL — in real life — instead of shadow ones on the web.

Now the trick is getting our kids to do the same. At the Idea School, we don’t have a standard tech policy. Students don’t take out their phones during class unless they have to for an assignment, but they often feel tempted by video games that are so easily accessible to them. While we obviously ban gaming during class, our general approach in the school is to engage students in discussions about any topic that’s relevant to them, tech addiction being one of them. Before Passover, when we discussed how we might be slaves today, one student astutely noted that we’re all slaves to our devices.

More recently, when we had an advisory session about technology and its role in our lives, the students shared that they felt that sometimes adults make gross overgeneralizations about teenagers and how addicted they are to their tech. Nevertheless, many of them don’t have the knowledge of what tech is doing to their brains and how the tech industry is deliberately manipulating them into being unable to take a break from games such as Fortnite.

That’s why, in addition to having discussions about technology, we’re having our students engage in the kinds of activities that have as healing an effect on them as the ones I’ve chosen for my free time: each morning, before we pray shacharit, the morning prayer, we have a discussion around a table about an important topic in the world, putting aside our phones and honing our speaking and listening skills. When the weather is good, we pray mincha, the afternoon service, outside and then let the students “have recess” so they can hang out, get some fresh air, and simply talk to each other without the intrusion of a screen. Come to think of it, the spiritual rhythm of the Jewish day offers us opportunities to unplug from our screens and take time to appreciate God and enjoy nature and each other in healthy, unfettered ways.

Any new technology requires adjustments and adaptations, but we shouldn’t turn tech into a bogeyman, nor should we let it turn us against each other. Let’s stay centered, and not get sucked into the whirlwinds of our time. As I said to two students when I caught them playing Fortnite in a school lounge when they should have been in class, “Don’t let the game master you. You master the game.” They looked at me, sighed, but then got up to return . . . to life.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Jewish high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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