Internet Overexposure: An Open Letter to My Student’s Parents
By Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Leibowitz
Dear Mr. and Mrs. [Name Withheld for Privacy],
I am writing this letter on behalf of your son.
As I’m sure you know already, your son is an extremely bright and talented young man. He is proud of his family and community and speaks so highly of you, his parents, as loving and caring people. Maybe that’s why the conversation we had recently was so hard for him.
When he sat down across the desk from me he looked uncomfortable. He shifted a lot in his chair. He avoided direct eye contact. I think I even saw a tear in his eye. He told me he was ashamed and embarrassed to bring up the topic. But clearly keeping it inside was harder than sharing.
When he finally began to speak, he said, “Rebbe, I have done some things I’m not proud of. The problem begins with my laptop.”
Our community prides itself on synthesis. We strive for steadfast dedication to our sacred tradition while engaging the secular world around us. We have accepted the challenge of interacting with the outside world, for we recognize that there is much wisdom there, and we believe that our lives as Jews can be enriched by the brighter elements of secular culture.
However, the challenge of synthesis has increased exponentially in recent years. With the advent of the internet age we are now inundated with exposure to the secular world around us—a world whose moral compass has gone utterly awry. If we are to continue this noble endeavor of synthesis we must confront the question of how to responsibly and safely interact with the outside world that has now taken up residence in our homes and in our pockets.
Without question, the internet provides us with access to valuable elements of secular culture. Previously inconceivable sources of knowledge, important services and wholesome entertainment broadens horizons like never before. However, unlimited accessibility to the outside world is a double-edged sword, a benefit that brings with it significant risks. Perhaps the greatest challenge of the internet age is the unfiltered exposure to the dark side of mankind. Websites, videos and online forums glorifying pornography, suicide and self-harm, and illegal drug use are just some of the dark and destructive places that exist a click or swipe away from anyone with a laptop or smartphone.
Some might say this is an old story. They argue that 20 years ago teens also struggled with pornography and drugs, and most of them turned out fine. That might be true, but the internet is different because of its accessibility and anonymity. Twenty years ago it wasn’t easy for a 15-year-old to get his hands on inappropriate or dangerous media, and if he did, it was risky to hold onto it. These were significant deterrents, and they prevented some kids from getting involved in the first place, and other kids from being overly exposed. But today, a 15-year-old can access pornographic or dangerous material instantaneously and with complete anonymity. Without spending a dime, or even leaving the comfort of his home, he can get full exposure to basically anything. All with little effort and minimal risk. The danger is not just the vulgarity of the dark side of the internet; it’s about how easy it is to get there, and how easy it is to hide it. And that is why even our best and our brightest, like your son, are struggling.
It is incumbent upon us as a community to address the challenges of the internet and create environments for our children that aid in, not detract from, their healthy maturation as members of the Jewish community. One great stride that we can make in this area is to create a social norm that unfiltered internet has no place in an Orthodox home. Theological and halachic arguments aside, our children deserve to come home to an environment that is free from the evils of pornography and promotions of suicide/self-harm and narcotics. Whether we realize it or not, our children—who are often much more internet and computer savvy than we are—are being exposed to these dark and destructive areas of the internet. As an educator in a premier yeshiva in Israel, I can attest that many of our brightest and most religiously committed high school students suffer from internet overexposure. The damage from this overexposure spawns many corollary difficulties, including guilt and shame, low self-esteem, depression, addiction and much more.
There is no other way to state this: Unfiltered internet on a child’s phone or home internet network places our children in harm’s way.
Keeping these dangers out of our homes is not a new concept. Before the advent of the internet, when cable TV was the primary gateway to the outside world, how many families in our communities “opted in” for pornographic channels offered by cable TV providers? How many would have opted in for narcotics or pro-cutting information channels? But internet service can only be free of such influences if we “opt out,” and sadly, many fail to take this basic step to protect their children.
This is not a call to deny our children access to Facebook, or Instagram or YouTube. This is not a crusade against the texting or social media culture. This is a call, dare I say a plea, to have a basic filter installed on our home Wi-Fi networks and smartphones. A well-designed basic filter can be set to block only pernicious content. It need not cut our families off from the world or deny us all that is good on the internet. Its goal is simply to serve as a protective barrier against dangers that threaten our children.
If a filter can be designed to block only injurious content, why would anyone not install one?
Some parents think it is simply unnecessary. They believe that their children would not access such grotesque or harmful websites. But can parents really be sure that their kids are surfing the internet safely? Statistics regarding percentages of children who view dangerous or pornographic websites are staggering. From my own experience with post high school students, most students who struggled in this area say that their parents had no idea what was going on under their roof.
Some might say that we need to educate our children to withstand temptations and make good and safe decisions in life. Installing a filter, they argue, would shirk their educational responsibilities.
First and foremost, we must agree that there are certain red lines that parents need to draw. Do we really want to introduce these temptations and challenges into our homes? Indeed, few voices are heard advocating for keeping loaded firearms, illegal drug supplies or pornographic magazines in a child’s environment with the hope that the child is educated and disciplined enough to resist the temptations that would confront him whenever alone in that environment. Red lines are needed to limit temptations.
Second, what about the innocent children who accidentally stumble onto explicit online material? Twenty years ago, when a youngster was curious, he would perhaps look up a taboo word in the dictionary and giggle at the site of the word with his friends. Today, when he Googles a taboo word he is inundated with images and videos. I have heard too many unfortunate tales of young children being accidentally exposed to horrible images as a result of innocent curiosity or even a typo in Google.
Third, let’s not fool ourselves. Even the most advanced filter is not 100% protection, and children may have access to unfiltered internet on other’s equipment. Therefore, while filters limit risks, no filter obviates the need for educating our children to access the internet responsibly and make good and safe decisions. There is still much parenting and educating to do, even after the installation of a filter.
Lastly, let us also not overlook the fact that we already apply many safeguards and filters in our lives. Our homes are filled with useful and important objects that are also extremely dangerous if not treated carefully. Because of their value and importance, we buy powerful medicines, but we also protect against misuse by storing them in out-of-reach cabinets. We limit exposure to medicines because we would never want our child to get his or her hands on something that would present a danger to them.
It took years for the car industry to introduce seat belts. But once they did, it became a standard in all cars. Looking back, it’s amazing that it took so long to introduce such a basic protective device. And now, what responsible parent allows his or her child to travel in the car without a fastened belt?
It sometimes takes time to identify dangers and sometimes even longer to recognize solutions. There is no fault in that. But as responsible parents, we cannot allow our children to travel the Autobahn that is the internet without implementing measures for safe travels. I believe that one day in the not-too-distant future people will be amazed that there was a time when upstanding families allowed unfiltered internet on their phones and into their homes. Perhaps our community can serve as a light unto the nations and bring that future one step closer. In a world filled with so many challenges, we owe it to our children to provide them with healthy, positive, harm-free environments.
This brings me back to your son, my student. After his initial hesitancy, he shared with me the struggles he endured in high school with internet overexposure. He shared the feelings of guilt and shame. But he also bemoaned to me his parents’ naivete in allowing him to have a laptop in his room every night with unfiltered internet and a closed door. He begged me to speak to you. Why? So that his younger siblings do not need to be exposed to what he was exposed to.
Please consider your son’s plea and help his younger siblings.
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Leibowitz, originally from Teaneck, has been teaching post-high school students at Yeshivat Sha’alvim for over a decade. He is currently a ra”m and the assistant menahel of the overseas program at the yeshiva.