Posts

All week, every time I go to the hub to try to get online, Hashem is giving me 10 minutes, max, before He pulls the plug.

Let’s be clear that everyone else’s connection to that same internet is fine. But as soon as I’ve done the bare minimum of what I came to do online – zap! – the connection disappears and nothing I do brings it back.

Yesterday, I got a call from M., who asked me some very thoughtful things about using smartphones. The basic gist of our conversation was this: clearly, the technology is very bad, and is very addictive, and is causing millions of people (millions of Jews…) enormous difficulties on just about every level.

But M. made a hugely important point, that people only get addicted to this stuff in the first place because they are feeling some huge ‘lacks’ in their real lives, and that’s especially the case when a couple is going through a very difficult patch in their marriage and family life.

Clearly, internet addiction and smartphone use is a kind of emotional ‘crutch’, a form of escapism that people use to give them some respite from their own, truly very difficult, lives and personal relationships.

So given that, what’s really the answer, to taking down our time online and minimizing our connection to smartphones?

Over on spiritualselfhelp.org, I’ve just put up a kind of ‘three stage plan’ that sets out how to start the long process of overcoming our internet / screen addictions. As I mentioned in a previous post, internet is akin to food for most of us today, so at least at this stage of human development, the question is how can we interact with it in the most healthy, and least spiritually-damaging way? And not: how can we get rid of it entirely (although man, I really DO wish that was a practical option, and who knows, maybe one day soon it will be again.)

I go into the practical aspects a lot more on spiritualselfhelp, but here’s the crucial first step behind what I’m proposing over there:

STEP 1) ADMIT THE PROBLEM

Many people balk even at this first stage, because they already really know in their heart of hearts, that they’re using the internet / eye-phones / social media / obsessive checking of news sites as an emotional crutch or to self-soothe, or to ‘escape’ from their loneliness and frustration.

That was certainly what was going on with me, a couple of weeks’ back, when I realized I was smothering down a whole bunch of dissatisfaction and bad middot by checking my emails five times a day.

The more we ignore our real feelings and real issues, the bigger that pile under our mental carpet grows, and the scarier it becomes to lift the lid on what’s really happening in our lives. I take a fairly honest look at my real life on a fairly frequent basis, and I still had quite a tough week as all my ‘repressed stuff’ gushed out into the world again.

If people have been repressing things and ignoring their true feelings etc since childhood, or for any length of time, then to rip the scab off that massive wound simply isn’t going to work for most people.

So, admitting to the real problem has to be done cautiously, and with a lot of self-compassion, prayer and patience.

And what is the real problem, ultimately?

ANSWER: That we feel disconnected from God, our souls, and the people we most love.

Tachlis, that we feel profoundly lonely in our marriages, ignored by our parents, and unknown on a deeper level by even our closest friends.

THAT’s the real problem underpinning internet addiction (and every other addiction and bad midda and negative habit in the whole world.)

Coming to terms with that problem is a lifetime’s work, so this first step has to be attempted with maximum self-compassion, and with a lot of talking to God about what’s going on, every single day.

Without that strong connection to Hashem, most people will simply be unable to find the strength to acknowledge the REAL problem underpinning their internet addiction, and to face up to their true feelings and circumstances.

Then, we can talk about the more practical aspects of how to minimize internet and eye-phone use as much as possible, and I do that HERE over on spiritualselfhelp.

Last week, I was in Ikea with my kids in the badatz kosher cafeteria there.

(Even though I’ve lived in Israel for more than 11 years’ now, I still find kosher Ikea wildly exciting.)

It was the last days of Summer, and the cafeteria was packed with all sorts of people and their kids. Ahead of me in the queue was a cute-looking frum woman with a long skirt, long sleeves and regal head covering, who had a handful of younger kids holding on to her by her skirt.

Every two minutes, this woman took her massive i-Phone out of her bag, and started obsessively checking the headlines on Arutz 7. She’d scroll down for a couple of minutes, go over and check her emails, put the phone back in her bag (usually because some kid was tugging at her pretty aggressively, to get her attention) – and then two minutes’ later, repeat the whole ritual again.

I stood behind her for 15 minutes, and I saw her do this at least six times.

There are many things to be said about why i-phones are bad – like how easy they make it to access all the smut and degradation on the internet, especially for men; or how they chain people to work and checking their emails all the time, even when they’re meant to be hiking in nature with their families and relaxing; or how they suck people into a self-absorbed, pretty immodest culture of taking selfies and checking their appearance every 10 seconds.

But today, I just want to focus on one aspect of why i-Phones are so bad, which this one, average frum woman in Ikea really encapsulates: i-Phones give us no time to really ‘be’ with ourselves. I-Phones are addictive, because surfing the internet is addictive, and it fills the ‘space’ and the time that we’d otherwise be left alone with our thoughts.

People are so miserable today, and so uncomfortable with themselves, and so uncomfortable about the notion of exploring what they really think and feel about their lives and their relationships, that escapism has become the Number 1 ‘self-soothing’ activity of our generation.

The equation goes something like this:

Time to think = an opportunity to recognize what’s not going so well in my life, or what is maybe not so healthy or helpful = an impetus to change or improve = a push to actually do something different = SCARY AND DANGEROUS!!! = stay away from thinking at all costs.

i-Phone = escape into news, facebook and fantasy = no time to think = can keep busy at all costs = COMFORT ZONE = go back to sleep, everything’s fine (and don’t forget to take your anti-anxiety medication…)

i-Phones cut us off from thinking and being, and as a result, they distance us from our own souls.

They waste our time on addictive behaviors like obsessively checking emails, Facebook or Arutz 7. They suck us into a fake, plastic, superficial world that’s full of spiritually-dead, emotionally-ill people who spend so much time online because they also can’t just ‘be’. They prevent us from really interacting with the people standing right in front of our faces, because we’re too busy scrolling through old email conversations and sharing new stuff we just found out about.

And that’s if we’re ‘only’ using them for ostensibly kosher reasons.

If the sites we happen to visit are morally corrupting in anyway (which is like, er, 99.9% of the internet…) then the spiritual problems connected with i-Phones only continue to grow.

Do you really want to be immersed in a world where God is absent, people descended by chance from monkeys and where anything goes, morally and socially? And if by chance you really want that for yourself, is that what you really want for your children?

No-one needs an i-Phone.

(I know there are supposedly haredi ‘rabbis’ who are carrying around their i-Phones and claiming they need them to serve the community, but it’s all just fluff and excuses put around by people who forget that God is running the world, and that emails don’t have to be answered within 20 seconds of being received. Can you imagine Rav Ovadia using an i-phone? Or Rav Kanievsky? I rest my case.)

We don’t need to carry-on buying into a culture that has made ‘escapism’ and ‘keeping busy’ it’s bywords, because it’s dead from the soul-down and is trying to run away from all the human misery it’s created with its God-less, heretical and materialistic approach to life.

Take a moment and imagine how different that woman’s trip to Ikea could have been without her i-Phone.

Maybe, she’d have started a conversation up with one of her kids, and learnt something very helpful. Maybe, she’d have given another kid a hug, or a back tickle, to alleviate the boredom of waiting in line. Maybe, she’d have noticed that she has nothing to say to her family, and that would have made her wonder why that was the case, and what needed to change to get her back in touch with herself and with them, more?

Instead, she checked her emails and Arutz 7 six times, until it was her turn to order the schnitzels and fries.

Life is so, so precious. Every moment can be used to reach out to others, reach up to God, or to reach inwards, to our own souls.

But when we’re carrying an i-Phone around, it’s so much easier to turn on to the emptiness of the internet, than to tune in to our own lives and loved ones.

Doing my internet work at the ‘hub’ for start-ups that the Jerusalem Council has very kindly located right next door to my house is giving me a lot of food for thought.

When I first started going there, a couple of months’ back, there were already a few ‘regulars’ who seemed to have the whole start-up / internet entrepreneur thing sussed.

Their conversations were full of impressive-sounding strategies for how to use Twitter, and how to reach people by paying writers to pretend to be fake people using their products on Fakebook, and how to optimise opportunities via Amazon Associates etc etc

Despite myself, I was secretly impressed – and not so secretly thrown for a loop. I mean, they sounded so with-it and sorted, they were surely making millions already…

And me? Well, I’m still waiting for my ship to come in and my efforts to pay off.

Somewhere deep down, I started to think that maybe I had to start playing the game a whole lot more, if I really wanted to get somewhere online.

Maybe, I’d have to start investing a huge amount of effort in Twitter…Maybe, I’d have to hold my nose and start a Facebook account…Maybe, I’d have to waste huge chunks of time making stupid comments on other people’s posts to ‘maintain visibility’…

I’ll be honest: I started a Twitter account for JEMI; I started a Facebook page (purely business) for Talk to God. And after a couple of weeks, this is what I realised:

It’s all a crock!

God really doesn’t need me to waste my time trying to garner likes, retweets or comments in order to do something useful with my life.

Meanwhile, back at the hub, the wheels were starting to come off a lot of the bright, shiny ‘internet entrepreneurs’. They aren’t all going bonkers (yet…) but there are some definite signs of wear and tear on even the most bullish and optimistic ones.

As I watched them get more and more stressed, and angry, and less and less friendly and even plain nice, this is what I realised:

Being on the internet too much is literally driving people insane.

There’s many reasons for this.

1) It makes you waste a lot of time on things that appear to be useful, which are anything but.

Then, you get to the end of the day wondering where all that effort and investment went, and you have nothing to show for it.

2) It gives you a false sense of connection, that actually just leaves you feeling incredibly empty as soon as you power-off.

The first few weeks of doing things like Linked In, or writing articles for Ezine, I was thrilled to be back in the ‘real world’ again, and connecting to people. Then, I realised how lonely I felt after I’d sent another email monologue, or read through a few other people’s posts.

It was like trying to connect to a statue, or a ghost. There was an impression or illusion of a relationship there, but actually nothing underneath. I imagine regular users of Facebook must feel the emptiness in their real lives even more acutely.

3) It literally saps your strength and energy.

This is a whole big post for another time, but I could feel enormous differences in my mood and my energy levels when I was working on a computer that was connected to the internet, and when I wasn’t.

To put it simply, the electrical frequency that things like WiFi are operating on completely fry out the human electrical system that’s part of the miraculous way that God operates the human body. It’s like having all your circuits scrambled – it literally drains you of energy, changes your mood, and puts you into a type of hypnotic trance.

(BTW, this is also a big part of the reason why internet use is actually physically addictive, but I’ll talk about that another time.)

4) It blurs the line between real and unreal

More than anything else, watching the erstwhile internet entrepreneurs literally waste hours of their precious time pipe dreaming about the online businesses they were building, and the online audiences they are capturing, has taught me a very profound lesson about how the yetzer hara can use our power of imagination against us.

In internet make believe land:

  • You HAVE to have a dotcom for anyone to take you seriously…
  • Your website has to have a beta model, take 6 months to put together, and cost a minimum of $10k…
  • You have to be working Twitter and Facebook all day and all night – even creating a slew of fake people, to help you promote your product…

In reality:

  • No-one really gives a monkeys about how your email address ends.
  • You can do a very nice website (or 5) on DIY sites like Weebly for a few bucks’ a month, and no-one will ever know the difference.
  • Twitter and Facebook are a complete waste of time – everyone is churning it out, but no-one is really paying attention to what anyone else is saying.

Once I realised all this (and it took me a few good weeks to really see through the illusion), I stopped taking all the internet and social media stuff seriously. I got back in touch with my belief that God is running the world – even crazy places like pretend internet entrepreneur land – and I cut back my visits to the hub to maximum 2 or 3 times a week.

The last thing I did is take up knitting. It may not sound as impressive as sending tweets to 800 people every day, but it’s a heck of a lot more enjoyable and productive.

Last week, my husband decided he needed to get a phone that would let him send texts (but nothing else…) which sparked off a frantic round of ‘musical mobile phones’ in my family.

When the music stopped, I’d ended up with my daughter’s old phone, she got my husband’s old phone, and everyone was happy. Then that particular daughter started popping off to her room for ‘quiet’ time with alarming regularity.

I thought to myself: ‘Maybe she’s stressing out about the end of year play….Maybe she’s overwhelmed by all the bat mitzvah prep…Maybe one of her teachers is giving her a hard time…’ Then one morning, I went to wake her up – and she was already awake, playing on her new phone.

The penny dropped.

Turns out, there’s some really cool zoo game on my husband’s old (apparently not as kosher as it looked) phone, where you have to keep feeding the animals every day, or they die.

My kid was hooked on feeding the electronic gorillas.

Now, I’ve learned enough to know:

 

1) Confiscating the phone is only going to backfire

2) God is using the gorillas to show me something about me and my life

3) I HATE how slimy modern technology actually is.

 

I explained to my daughter that she was addicted to her phone, and she agreed.

“But if I don’t feed the gorillas, they’re going to die!” she told me plaintively.

In the meantime, she’d been so caught up in feeding the gorillas she’d forgotten to feed her real life hamster for a week, and it was looking a little peaky, to put it mildly. But I digress.

I left my daughter, and made my way back to the laptop, that’s been consuming a bit too much of my life this past week. As I plugged in the internet stick for the 4th time that day, my husband raised a quizzical eyebrow at me (I had huge internet addictions 8 years’ ago, and that’s one of the reasons I got it out of the house.)

“I have to check my emails,” I explained plaintively.

Then it hit me: I sounded just like my daughter, caught up in the fantasy land of feeding pretend gorillas.

Maybe the excuse was a bit more convincing, but I could see it was exactly the same stupid principle at play: If I don’t check my emails every few hours, all my online opportunities and connections are going to die….

But really? They’re not. And if that does actually happen, then they were probably as genuinely useful and real as my daughter’s gorillas.