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Technology and Upbringing

Thoughts on Parashat Bereishit

Menachem Mirski

God made a world that is good but unfinished. He left his work to be completed by us people, or rather to be constantly completed in the context of changes taking place in the world. There are basically two ways of creating / changing / completing the world around us within our human capabilities: through technology, its development and application, and through the upbringing of subsequent generations.

These two ways of changing the world have always been related in some way. The invention of writing made it possible to pass on knowledge and experience to future generations. The invention of printing caused a real revolution in education and greatly increased the possibilities of its popularization. Today, however, both these areas of human creative activity in the world have become extremely close. Because technology has absolutely permeated all areas and aspects of our lives, never before has it had such a huge impact on upbringing and education, and thus on the formation of human beings.

Apart from their undoubted, revolutionary benefits technology brought to the human world, there are also enormous dangers in bringing these two mentioned areas closer together. Some vivid examples of how technology can negatively affect the formation of human beings are to be found in works of Dr Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, author of over 120 scientific publications and the books Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic.

In her latest book, iGen, the author focuses on the changes that have been made by the latest technological advances of our time: smartphones and social media. Using extensive research, insightful interviews and in-depth analysis of data collected from over 11 million respondents over several decades, Twenge shows that the uniqueness of the iGen generation is reflected in the way they spend their time, behave, and finally in their unique attitude to religion, sexuality and politics. These transformations, however, related to the total domination of life by smartphones, negatively affect every sphere of teenagers’ lives, from social interactions to mental health.

Social media and texting have largely displaced other forms of recreation and communication – an iGen spends less time with friends and family, resulting in levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness never seen in young people before. In fact, the statistics are alarming, to say the least.

The research done three years ago on young instagram users (and similar results have been known in academic research on this topic for many years) proved that the longer a teen girl spends on social media the more likely she is to be depressed or to engage in behaviors like self-harming, cutting etc. The suicide rate has doubled among children aged 10-14 since 2007 and quadrupled for girls in that age group right, as social media became more and more popular… There are lots of children who are 12 years old and younger on those platforms even though they are not supposed to be there. For example, facebook consistently doesn’t enforce that age limit, partly because no one makes them enforce it. The social-media companies are getting away without pretty much any regulation while other things that hurt children are very carefully regulated. The big-tech and social media companies are making billions of our children, wrecking their lives to the extent that they kill themselves… and nobody is actually paying attention to it.

The recent research has proven that every major indicator of mental health among teens – depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal tendencies – started to escalate right at the time smartphones were introduced and when they became popular around 2012. Teens’ lives fundamentally shifted at that time: they stopped spending as much time with each other in person and started communicating online through platforms like instagram. Being in the bedroom all the time on your smartphone as opposed to actually being with other people – that is a very poor recipe for mental health.

Whether it is all exclusively about social media or not, it is definitely a part of a more complex problem involving a complete change of the regular, ‘normal’ way of life. It absolutely has to do with the disappearance of traditional social values, like devotion to live in the human community, so much cherished in the Jewish tradition. All these traditional values are constantly forgotten in the world of immediate gratification and overstimulation of senses our children are constantly exposed to.

The long-term consequences of this situation are difficult to predict, but they are likely to be permanent. Destruction of the human world starts from the destruction of young, vulnerable people. One of the foundations of the rise and success of Nazism was the tragedy of young people, especially men, forcibly drawn to the fronts of World War I. It instilled a resentment in their young minds and largely determined who they backed politically as adult men two decades later.

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” (Gen 6:5-7)

Contemporary technology is less and less “just a tool that can be used for good to bad purposes.” Its impact on our lives is deeper and much more often beyond our individual control. Of course, the evil that mankind can do to itself through the uncontrolled influence of technology in shaping young human beings may not be of “biblical dimensions”: God ultimately promised that He would not bring a flood-sized catastrophe to the earth any more (Gen 8:20-22). But in humanity as such and the institutions it creates, there is still a dormant potential for evil of “biblical dimensions”, as the 20th century painfully convinced us of. So let us be attentive, understanding, foreseeable and responsible for how the genius of “our generation” affects the development and condition of the young generation that grows among us, because the direction in which they will go determines the direction of the development of the whole world.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.