(JTA) — “Teenagers wake up in the morning. They get dressed, brush their teeth, and check their social media. But this technology is not just what they do, it is who they are.”
David wrote those sentences back in 2009. Now, almost 15 years later, this more true than ever for teens and tweens. Particularly with the catalyst of the pandemic, their lives often take place and connections are built through screens.
Since Oct. 7, as social media filled up with unspeakable images of the Hamas attack on Israel, countless articles quoted educational leaders urging parents to delete social media applications from their children’s devices. But offering parents one solution right now — to delete apps and try and prevent their children from seeing these images — is way too simplistic and perhaps even misguided.
The goal of that advice is to spare children from viewing the horrific images, emanating from Hamas, designed to instill fear in Israelis and all Jews around the world.
We support efforts to curtail the viewing and dissemination of these distressing posts; we now know that many of the videos are deliberately infected with falsehoods and malware to further intensify the terror, and we all need to safeguard our mental health and that of our loved ones. And we will be the first to recognize our own shortcomings as parents, especially in these challenging times.
So yes: As parents, our natural instinct is to protect our children. But as parents, and as a broader community, we can, and must do better than just telling people to look away from social media.
There has been violence and evil on these platforms before this week, and there will continue to be despicable content forevermore. Any Jewish educator involved with teaching the Holocaust has learned to navigate this.
Social media is also home to tremendous acts of kindness, philanthropy, compassion and goodwill. There are bonds and friendships formed and maintained on social media —and the distinction between virtual relationships and so-called “in-person” relationships is very blurry for tweens and teens. Many of our young people find social media, and the opportunity to express their authentic selves to their communities, to be a relief and a joy in a world that can be very lonely. To wholly disconnect children from social media is also to disconnect them from many of these positive attributes.
Parents at the very least should consider that the short-term need to protect their child might set up a confrontation that could pull them apart — at a moment when children may look to them for love, support and guidance.
Perhaps there is a middle ground. First, if parents gave permission to a child to install an app, they can also be responsible for ensuring the app is used in the right manner — much like parents will prepare a child to take public transportation for the first time or drive a car. The rules parents outline for social media also do not have to be static, and can change as rapidly as our understanding of the evolving situation changes.
Second, if parents believe they have the power of persuasion or coercion to delete social media from their child’s devices, parents also have the wherewithal to have a conversation with them. Talk about Israel right now, the power of social media and the pain and confusion of distressing videos.
And finally, if parents want to raise children who connect with their Israeli brothers and sisters beyond images of violence and vulnerability, they should give their children an affirming Jewish education (this might come across as a shameless plug for Jewish education — it is). We make no distinction between settings — day schools, congregational schools, Jewish summer camps, youth movements, or any other setting where Jewish learning takes place. It is not enough to be a parent who reacts when fearful; parents must also be proactive and give children the competencies and confidence to be able to take pride in their Jewish being — in good times and in bad.
A Jewish identity that is formed in reaction to hatred is not sustainable. It is natural that in moments when there is distress amongst the Jewish people, we will awaken to the depths of our innate bonds, and those instincts are beautiful. But without the building blocks of Jewish identity and joy to sustain our children throughout their lifelong Jewish journeys, affinity in moments of tragedy will not be enough.
Neither deleting apps nor sending children to a place of Jewish education absolves parents of their ultimate responsibility. The strength of all Jewish parents in the world combined cannot prevent these insidious images from entering a child’s device — even if it is stopped now, it is only a matter of time. Parents must learn and know and talk to their children, answer their questions, and be there for them and hug them, and talk to them about all of the good and the evil in this world.
Please protect your children. Also please help them acquire the tools that they need not just to weather these extremely dark days, but to thrive on the other side of this war.