What will cure us?
Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine
J ean Twenge, a professor of social psychology, has written an important article in the current Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” that will provide much ammunition to parents concerned about their children’s use of iPhones, iPods, and various forms of social media.
Twenge’s research focuses on differences between generations. Beginning in 2012, she began to notice abrupt changes in teen behaviors and emotional states, unlike any that she had previously encountered in 25 years of study. These were changes in kind, not degree. She attributes these changes in what she terms “iGens,” those born between 1995 and 2012, to attachment to their smartphones. “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people,” Athena, the 13-year-old protagonist with whom Twenge opens the piece, tells her.
If Generation X (post-baby boomers) extended adolescence beyond all previous limits, Twenge writes, then iGen has extended childhood well into high school. Twelfth graders today spend less time together with friends than eighth graders in 2001. They are content to stay home and communicate via their electronic devices.
That change in behavior has not made them happier. Just the opposite. Without exception, Twenge’s data show, “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness.” Correlation, Twenge admits, does not prove causation, though she does cite one study in which college students’ online activities were closely monitored over two weeks: Use of Facebook led to higher reported levels of unhappiness, but reported unhappiness did not lead to increased Facebook use.
The statistics Twenge amasses are truly terrifying. Eighth graders who are heavy users of electronic devices are 27 percent more likely to be depressed. Teens who spend three hours a day on their phones or other electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. And teen suicides are skyrocketing. Three times as many girls and twice as many boys took their lives in 2015 as compared to 2007.
Twenge can only speculate on how use of social media leads to increased depression and even suicide. Teens typically worry about being left out. Social media sites where they can view others apparently enjoying themselves increase such feelings. Forty-eight percent more girls reported feeling left out in 2015 than in 2010, an astounding jump in a short space of time. Social media also provides a perfect platform for cyberbullying.
Twenge reports that almost all her college students sleep with their iPhones within reach: It is the first thing they see in the morning, and the last thing at night. And should they awaken in the night, they are likely to check their phones. No wonder that 57 percent more teens are sleep-deprived today than teens were in 1991. They sleep less, and they sleep poorly. Lack of sleep is associated with anxiety and depression, not to mention illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure.
And if all this were not enough, Twenge concludes by noting the deficits in social skills arising from a lack of face-to-face contact that are likely to persist into adulthood. The consequences of a lack of social skills are manifold. Such skills are essential to obtaining and retaining many jobs. And a recent meta-analysis of multiple studies found that social isolation and loneliness is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, risk factor for early mortality, and that “greater social connection” cuts the risk of early death by 50 percent.
JEFFREY BLOOM’S IMPORTANT ESSAY in this month’s Mosaic, “G-d, Religion, and America’s Addiction Crisis,” also opens with addictions to electronic devices, and not the more frequently reported opioid crisis so poignantly described by Christopher Caldwell in “American Carnage” (First Things, April 2017). The latter claimed 52,000 lives in America due to overdoses in 2015. “Deaths of despair” due to alcoholism and overdoses have led to declining life expectancies among both non-college educated men and women in the world’s richest country.
Bloom starts with a discussion of Irresistible, a book by NYU marketing professor Adam Alter. The “zombies” produced by electronic devices cut across age, class, and educational lines. “My mom is almost always on the iPad at dinner,” says one seven-year-old quoted by Adams. “She’s always ‘just checking.’ ” One seventh grader describes how she stopped doing everything she had formerly done because she was so totally absorbed in social media. In 2007, the average adult spent 18 minutes a day on their phone; today that figure is nearly three hours.
Perhaps Alter’s most important contribution is to describe the ways that the feedback mechanisms embedded in social media are engineered to reduce self-control and to induce addictive behavior in users of electronic media — which today means just about everyone.
But Bloom has a bone to pick with Alter as well: Alter dismisses the 12-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous as irrelevant to behavioral addictions. Stanton Peele, cited favorably by Adler, rejects the 12-step methodology as an affront to human dignity. Can there be a more “pernicious, anti-humanistic idea” than the necessity of submitting to a “Power greater than ourselves?” Peele asks. “Is there any more denigrating statement in the addiction field than, ‘Your own best thinking got you here’?” In a similar vein, Thomas McLellan, former deputy US drug czar, charges, “Alcohol-and-substance abuse disorders are the realm of medicine… not the realm of priests.”
Bloom, however, argues that the exclusion of priests and rabbis is premature. At the very least, he writes, there are addicts for whom “vital spiritual exercises” (in Carl Jung’s words) are necessary. He does not make a statistical argument for the efficacy of the 12-step process other than to cite the award-winning work of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh. Nor does he make any attempt to show that the 12-step methodology will be as effective for the electronic addictions with which he begins his piece as it is for substance abuse and certain behavioral addictions, such as gambling or those dealt with by the Guard Your Eyes organization.
Twelve-step theory is based on “ego collapse at depth,” also known as hitting bottom. When one has overdosed and only been brought back to life by an immediate injection, when one has gambled away the third mortgage on one’s home and faces eviction, when the airline requires you to purchase two seats for your widening spread, it is easy to see how one might experience hitting bottom. It is less clear, however, at what point the mother who is always “just checking” her e-mail or the depressed and lonely Internet surfer realizes that something has gone terribly wrong and he or she is out of control.
WHAT BLOOM does do, however, is to quote a number of Jewish thinkers, both more classical and contemporary, to sketch, albeit tentatively, a Torah perspective on addiction. Judaism’s unique intertwining of belief and action — the latter in the form of halachic observance — is well suited, for instance, to AA’s emphasis on turning the insights gained in group sessions into action.
The Exodus story, Bloom argues, has parallels to the addict’s journey. He quotes Rabbi Jeremy Kagan’s insight in The Choice to Be (based on a Vilna Gaon) that links the final descent of the Jewish People in Egypt to the unceasing, mindless gathering of straw forced on them by their taskmasters. That constant activity prevented any contemplation, any ability to impose unity on their experience, in much the same way that constantly responding to cues from one’s electronic devices does.
Bnei Yisrael are taken out from Egypt by Hashem, and not through their own efforts, although only after having prepared themselves by slaughtering the gods of the Egyptians and placing the blood on their doorposts. In AA terminology: “Without G-d I can’t. Without me, He won’t.”
Even after Sinai, where Hashem revealed to them a life filled with purpose and meaning, there is still much work to be done. Rabbi Akiva Tatz describes that work: “[O]nce saved, once inspired, once made conscious of our higher reality, the price must be paid, the experience must be earned, and in working to earn the level that was previously given artificially, one acquires that level genuinely.” But even then, there is always the danger of sinking back to the dependency of Egypt, as manifested by Bnei Yisrael’s repeated expressions of desire for the imagined fleshpots of their former home.
IN PRIVATE COMMUNICATION with me, Bloom, who is a longtime friend, attached significance — rightly, I think — to the fact that a prestigious publication like Mosaic, aimed at the general Jewish public, proved so receptive to Torah ideas and to a discussion of the power of Torah living. And he attributed that receptivity — again rightly, I believe — to the widespread sense that society is breaking down.
In a letter to Rabbi Shais Taub, who explicated AA from the perspective of Torah thought in G-d of Our Understanding, Bloom quotes from Rabbi Moshe Shapira’s ztz”l understanding of the machlokes between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua (Sanhedrin 97b–98a) on how the geulah will come. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, the Geulah will come when “the self-contradictions of evil are so evident that it becomes clear that a world without Hashem cannot long exist without destroying itself.”
Rav Shapira continues: “The teshuvah process comes not from the triumph of good over evil, in which the truth of Hashem is too overwhelming to deny. Rather it comes from reaching a situation in which existence is no longer possible and the Jewish People must concede that life apart from Hashem cannot continue.” (The quotations are from my summary in these pages of one of Rav Moshe’s posthumously published shiurim on Exile and Exodus.)
Rabbi Yehoshua’s path is the one that we appear to be witnessing today. The signposts are everywhere: the various addiction crises, the ever-decreasing number of children raised by both biological parents, the lost sense of community and institutions mediating between the state and the individual, and the declining feelings of individual value and purpose as workforce participation plummets. Each of these exacts a heavy toll on the lives of more and more individuals. As the toll mounts, so does the openness to the wisdom of Torah increase.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 669. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org