Judaism: Our Children's What'sApp Culture
Rabbi Yonah GoodmanThe writer is Director of the Institute for Contemporary Religious Education, Orot Teachers College, Elkana, Israel and former secretary-general of Bnai Akiva, Israel.
Current data suggests that the average Israeli teenager receives some 1500 WhatsApp messages a day.(1)
In other words, the teen’s electronic device beeps about 1500 times a day, and each time, he stops doing whatever it is he happens to be doing (reading, talking to a friend, studying, etc.) in order to discover the answer to that urgent question: Who just posted an erudite thought (which often ends with the letters “LOL”)?
Let me be clear: I have nothing against people who use WhatsApp, but I am very concerned about those who allow WhatsApp to use them. Instead of taking advantage of a helpful tool, they are controlled by it. Or, more precisely, they have subjugated themselves to an anonymous friend who may have written something clever, and they worry that they are not the first one to post a witty response.
But the matter does not end there. I recently asked a group of (Religious Zionist) teens a simple question: “What is the last thing you do before going to bed: (a) take a shower, (b) put on pajamas, (c) recite Kriat Shema, or (d) check to see if a WhatsApp message arrived during the other activities?” 90% of the smartphone owners responded that the last thing they do before going to bed (and the first thing they do in the morning…) is check WhatsApp or Facebook on their cell phones.
I usually add a follow-up question: “It is 1:00 AM. You have put away your smartphone, recited Kriat Shema, closed your eyes, found a comfortable spot on your pillow, and… the device beeps. A new message has arrived. What do you do?” Astonishingly (or maybe not…), over 90% said they open their eyes to see who is texting them. (Often, the message proves to be mere drivel or nonsense.)
Simply put, the device no longer serves man but rather causes many to lose their individuality. They permit it to invade their own intimate, personal space, in the minutes before bedtime, when a free man reads in peace and quiet or thinks about and even contemplates his day and his world.
Moreover, we should add another fact to the equation. Not long ago, Time magazine reported that 68% of young people sleep with their devices in their beds, and an additional 16% sleep with the device on their night tables. In total, 84% of young people sleep with their electronic devices! When I ask teens (and adults) about this, they give a technical explanation: Since they use their phone as an alarm clock, they have no choice but to sleep with it. However, the result is that they willingly transform themselves into soldiers who are on alert 24/7. They are ever vigilant to check their beeping phones the moment someone decides to post an image or a joke.
Yet, the picture is even more complex. Of his own accord, a smartphone owner checks his device hundreds of times a day. He frequently interrupts himself and his chosen activity to check his phone after hearing a beep - whether it is an incoming email, his Facebook feed, or a WhatsApp message. (Cross out the irrelevant options for those who only use some of these applications.)
It sometimes seems as if many are trying to resurrect the neighborhood bully. I am referring to the tormenter who forces the weaker kids to do his bidding: to buy him ice cream, to shine his shoes or to do his household chores. On the playground, kids who cater to others’ whims are commonly called “stooges” or “doormats.” And behold, right before our very eyes, countless young people readily turn themselves into their phone’s “stooge” and are subject to the beep’s beck and call at every hour of the day and night.
The loudmouth down the block who posts an inane comment on WhatsApp will always draw their attention, instead of – and in the midst of – a meaningful conversation with a friend, reading a book or an article, a fun trip, learning Torah (or even davening!), listening to oneself, or any other way that a free person chooses to occupy his own time.
As always, we should distinguish between practical suggestions and a deeper, thoughtful approach to the issue. The practical suggestions are simple. For instance, one can encourage teenagers to purchase alarm clocks, turn off their smartphones at night, and put them away in a drawer. They can thus liberate themselves from the device’s demanding beeps and dedicate a few minutes to their own needs.
Actually, they do not have to wait for bedtime. Turning off the phone two hours earlier ensures that one’s daily schedule includes a set time when one is not “available” to the entire world and when one can pay attention to oneself and one’s personal spiritual world. In fact, this idea would not hurt the many adults who also sleep with their smartphones next to their heads “as an alarm clock.”
In addition, one should turn off the automatic tone that indicates that a new message has arrived. In this way, the phone’s owner regains control of his time, because he is able to decide for himself when to read all his incoming messages at once (as long as he is not “addicted” and feels compelled to check his messages every five minutes…).
However, as important as they are, these technical suggestions (which parents are advised to implement as preconditions for purchasing the smartphone!) are insufficient. In addition, we must develop a healthy approach to life. We must recognize that in our generation, when we are blessed with means and abundance, we must work harder to achieve freedom.
Man is unique in that HaKadosh Baruch Hu granted him free will. Hence, man alone has the power to protect that choice and to retain his freedom by keeping the time-wasters in his pocket (or on his desk, in the form of the Internet, movies, and computer games) on short leash.
And even if a teenager’s parents are no longer in a position to enforce the rules, the teenager must understand that a mature person “manages” himself and figures out how to live a life of discipline and independence, in spite of the constant barrage of temptations and enticements that surround us.
1 This statistic makes sense. If we assume that a typical class WhatsApp group includes 30 students and that each student posts 20 messages a day, the group total is 600 messages a day. But most teens also belong to several other WhatsApp groups – e.g., youth movement groups, soccer team groups, family groups, etc. –
and thus, 1500 messages a day is very realistic.
From Orot College's "Eye on Education":
The Orot College of Education is a college of education for Israeli men and women on two campuses from across the Land of Israel, with an overseas as well as an Israeli program. Over 2,400 students study at Orot to become certified teachers. Orot alumni live in England, the US, Canada and of course, Israel.