Empowering Parents; Everything Is Inscribed

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Dr. Pelcowitz, a chaired professor in psychology and Jewish education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, has long been one of the Orthodox world’s treasured resources.

The new issue of Klal Perspectives, “Technology and the 21st Century Orthodox Community,” is now available, and for my money it is one of the best, if not the best, ever. Much of the credit for that no doubt goes to Dr. David Pelcovitz, who served as the guest editor for the issue.

Dr. Pelcowitz, a chaired professor in psychology and Jewish education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, has long been one of the Orthodox world’s treasured resources. One of his important contributions to this discussion was his ability to gather five other Orthodox holders of doctorates in the social sciences to give the issue a research based flavor. They are joined by five rabbis and laymen in examining the impact of Internet and social media from a variety of perspectives, both positive and negative.

Rather than attempt to summarize the main points of the various contributions – all of which are well worth reading – I would like to focus on Dr. Pelcovitz’s own piece because I think it has implications for Orthodox parents beyond the scope of the particular issue of cyber technology.

Dr. Pelcovitz begins forthrightly by citing numerous studies that “the most effective parenting style in helping children deal with digital technology is an authoritative style . . . of parents setting firm limits.” That advice, he acknowledges, comes at a time when parents, Orthodox Jews among them, feel ever less capable of establishing limits. From the discussion following a talk at one Bais Yaakov school on the challenges presented by the Internet and constant connectivity, Dr. Pelcovitz understood that the overwhelming majority of the girls had never had a discussion with their parents about “rules and guidelines for prudent use of the Internet or social media.”

Some of the reasons for parental failure to set limits are specific to the issue of Internet and some apply to modern parenting in general. In the first category is parental stress, which leads some parents to secretly welcome their teens’ constant involvement in cyber media as a form of babysitting that lessens their demands for parental attention.

I would confidently predict, however, that any parent who seeks to save time in this fashion will end up paying back many times over in the future in dealing with their children’s overexposure. The better strategy for gaining time and reducing stress would be for parents to limit their own Internet use.

In general, parents are reluctant to adopt an authoritative voice because they don’t want to deal with their children’s tantrums or be compared unfavorably to their children’s friends’ far more “reasonable” or “enlightened” parents. Here Dr. Pelcovitz offers a good deal of material to reinforce parental spines, including the testimony of former teenage clients who now look back at parental restrictions as expressions of parental love and sense of responsibility. They can also acknowledge years later that parental rules often protected them from entering into dangerous situations for which they felt themselves to be inadequately prepared.

In one study conducted by Debbie Fox, Los Angeles teenagers enrolled in local yeshiva high schools were asked how they will deal with their own children’s cyber involvement. Over half responded that they will be stricter than their parents were with them. That response indicates an awareness that their own use of internet and the lack of parental involvement has been damaging to them. Teenagers readily admit, for instance, that their capacity to concentrate has declined as a consequence of constant multitasking via digital technology.

Dr. Pelcovitz also offers sound advice on the conditions for effective parental rule-making. First, parents should speak with emotion about the issue. The more passion they show the likelier their messages are to become part of the familial culture. Parents sharing their own struggles against being “mindlessly pulled into technology during family time . . . and their determination to fight the temptation” is one means of conveying the importance of the issue.

But all the parental emotion in the world will only be effective in the context of strong familial bonds. And those bonds have been badly frayed by the constant connectivity of both parents and children. The time families spend together has been reduced and so has the quality of that time. Children often experience their parents’ “absent presence” – they are there but not really there.

Even the presence of a switched off cellphone on a desk or table diminishes the attention of its owner, and children are acutely sensitive to the quality of parental attention. Dr. Pelcovitz cites one fascinating study showing that infants can distinguish between parental distraction caused by the presence of a cellphone and that coming from performance of mundane tasks such as folding the laundry. The infants instinctively know that the distraction of wanting to check emails or Facebook postings is far stronger.

Parental modelling is far more powerful than words with respect to all parental messages. Texting while driving is implicated in about 10% of traffic fatalities, and one study found that 92% of teenagers engage in this potentially lethal practice. What chance, however, do parental messages on this score have of being heeded, if the mother herself texts while drivin?

The authoritative parenting Dr. Pelcovitz advocates does not preclude discussion between parents and children about the responsible use of the internet and other digital devices. Indeed he recommends a collaborative effort to draft a contract between parents and teenage children concerning the use of digital devices. That contract can also include terms binding on all family members, such as technology free meals and designated times on family vacations.

The contract does not mean that everything is up for negotiation – e.g., the requirement that every digital device, not just the computer, have an appropriate filter. Dr. Pelcovitz draws on the common sense recommendations of child psychiatrist Jodi Gold, author of Screen Smart Parenting, and a model contract produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). One of Gold’s suggestions is that all technology be kept out of the children’s bedrooms, and particularly before bedtime, when their use is likely to impair the sleep of perpetually sleep-deprived teenagers. She also recommends that smartphones and similar devices be deposited with parents during time for homework and study.

The AAP contract contains an explicit agreement by the child not to watch inappropriate material or play violent games and that his or her parents have the right to periodically check their media history. Dr. Rona Novick, in an article in the same issue on cyberbullying, argues that parents should insist on access to their children’s social postings to ensure that they are neither victims nor victimizers. Parents should not be deterred by their children’s protestations that their privacy is being invaded. It is important that children understand early on that their cyber footprint is both public and permanent, according to Dr. Novick.

A crucial part of the contract is the enforcement provisions for breach of contract. In general, those should take the form of middah k’neged middah – inappropriate use or rule violations results in loss of the offending device for a period of time.

On a positive side, Dr. Pelcowitz suggests mindfulness exercises or some form of meditation as an antidote to the sense of being constantly distracted caused by ubiquitous connectivity. He notes that yeshiva and seminary students have proven open to mindfulness exercises to improve kavanah during davening.

Dr. Pelcowitz and his fellow contributors have provided valuable guidance for parents in the area of digital technology. But he has provided an even more important service by empowering parents to once again be parents, without being intimidated by their children from setting necessary limits.

Jonathan Rosenblum   
(Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine)

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