Social Media & Mental Health, Not Just the Problem of the "Ultra-Orthodox"

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Last month, over two consecutive nights, almost 50,000 women gathered at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey with an overflow crowd watching via a live hookup in a nearby hall.  Why did they gather, and what brought them together? 


The events were hosted by Technology Awareness Group (TAG), an organization that educates about the challenges of technology and offers a service to install filters on computers, tablets, and phones. 


The events were referred to as the “Nekadesh (let us make holy) rallies,” and organizers spent millions of dollars, not only to rent the arena but to offer hundreds of buses from communities around the New York metro area. The rallies, one in English and the other in Yiddish, featured prominent Rabbis and Rebbetzins and included collective singing.


While the overall message was intense and strident in raising objections to and concerns with technology, it was reported that the gatherings didn’t call for a blanket, wholesale rejection of technology, but rather for a far more selective, scaled down, cautious and judicious approach, including not participating in social media. 


Among those who not only listened carefully but acted immediately was Shaindy Braun, who over nine years had amassed 40,000 followers to her sheitel business, Sary Wigs, on Instagram.  Following the rally, she announced her departure right before deleting her profile: “I choose to leave this world of likes, followers and filters. I will be leaving Instagram to live in the real world. I want to focus on curating my real life, filtering my thoughts and speech and sending love and likes to the important people in my life…I am making this choice to close this page in order to make space for something higher. I want more אמת and more קדושה in my life and by extension for all of you my dear followers.”


While many were moved and inspired by the unprecedented rallies, others found them objectionable and even offensive and disturbing. The event was organized by and marketed to what many call the ultra-orthodox community. Some of the public criticism came from members of that community but much of it was from those outside of it who cynically saw the gatherings as misogyny on the part of the rabbis who participated, or part of a larger, methodical attempt to isolate, cut off, and disadvantage women.


I didn’t hear the speeches and don’t know the entirety of what was said at the event.  I have no doubt there were messages and themes conveyed that I wholeheartedly agree with and would echo, and other messages or messaging that I may not agree with entirely.


But as I read about reactions and criticisms of the gathering, I was struck by a thought.  If you don’t like the way this particular group is talking about technology, why not do it better.  If you think this group is extreme, go do it with moderation.  If you are offended because you believe it shouldn’t only be directed at women, organize rallies for men too. 


While many are quick to criticize, perhaps legitimately, are they leading an alternative effort to raise awareness of the dangers of technology and to promote healthier and safer practices?


Being mindful of the minefield that is technology and aware of the issues with social media is not a “frum” thing or a problem confined to the “ultra-orthodox.” The challenges and dangers don’t care what type of yarmulka you wear or don’t wear, what level of kashrus you keep, or where you send your children to school.


We are currently experiencing a mental health crisis of drastic proportions, with almost every measure of mental health getting worse for every teenage demographic, and it’s happening all across the country. The CDC reported that from 2009 to 2021, American high school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent.  Even before the pandemic, depression among adolescents had doubled.


What is the cause of this crisis, what explains this phenomenon? Experts say technology and social media are the culprit. Last year, researchers at Instagram itself published disturbing findings. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse…They often feel ‘addicted’ and know that what they’re seeing is bad for their mental health but feel unable to stop themselves.”


Facebook, which owns Instagram, also investigated the app’s effects on its users, and found, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls. Teens who struggle with mental health say Instagram makes it worse.”


Researchers from NYU, Stanford, and Microsoft published a paper with the title “Digital Addiction.” In their conclusion they reported that “self-control problems cause 31 percent of social media use.”  In other words, one in three minutes spent on social media is time we neither hoped to use beforehand nor feel good about afterwards.  What is the impact on our mental health?


A recent Gallup poll shows that 58% of U.S. adults believe they’re using their smartphones “too much.” In response to a new question this year, 64% say they check their smartphone as soon as they wake up in the morning.  Research shows we receive a  dopamine rush, not unlike the one provided by drugs, when our phone rings or buzzes or when we get a like, friend, or follow.  I recently deleted (again) social media apps from my phone and I can personally testify that the impact can be felt immediately, not only on time wasted, but on clarity and presence.


If others organized an Asifa, would they have the courage to ask ourselves hard questions (and would anyone show up, let alone 50,000 people)? And what would those questions be? Certainly as a starting point we need to be careful and conservative as to when children should be getting devices, and then, when they do get them, filtering the devices and monitoring the time and activity spent on them, but what else? What about encouraging adults to be mindful of the time they are spending on social media, even if the content is completely appropriate? Does the anonymity or superficial barrier offered by certain parts of the internet work in our favor, or do we take advantage of these things to talk and act in a way that is inconsistent with how we present ourselves in “real life”? Are we capable of having an honest conversation about the effects social media is having on our self-esteem, our relationships, our anxiety, our spiritual well-being, or our overall mental health? And most importantly, are we creating a culture that believes in appropriate and healthy internet and social media use and putting up boundaries, and backing up those beliefs with real action?


Thinking these questions are only asked by the ultra-orthodox, a community you may not identify with, is a cop-out, an excuse. In fact, these questions are being asked regularly by people around the globe, many of whom are struggling with these issues, some of whom are comfortable proposing what might seem like radical responses, such as regulating social media, much like drugs or alcohol. 


There is not only a lot to consider from the “consumer” perspective, but from the producers as well.  Are Jewish “influencers” contributing to these statistics and to the damaging results?  Are we being thoughtful and intentional with who we and our children choose to be “influenced” by, about what, and how often?  Even if Jewish influencers are contributing meaningful and positive content, are they a gateway “drug” into other parts of social media and the internet that are far less valuable and far more pernicious? 


There aren’t clear answers, and most certainly different communities and different individuals will come to different conclusions, but these questions deserve to be asked, these topics need to be tackled.  Awareness about these dangerous statistics and trends needs to be promoted and healthy policies and practices need to be strengthened.


So while you may not agree with the Nekadesh rallies, you should be impressed by how many attended and left at least thinking about and talking about the role of technology in their lives.  There is no denying that there is a lot to talk about, no matter which community you identify with, so instead of only being critical about one approach, offer an alternative, and see if 50,000 people can be more thoughtful in this area.