Rabbi Dr. Yosef Yitzchok Shagalow, a shliach and psychologist, analyzes the challenge of the Internet and says that in most cases it is an addiction in which the person substitutes the real world for a virtual world ● How does one identify the problem? How does one handle a child who is involved with the Internet? Why isn't it enough to use a filter?
Interviewer: Avrohom Rabinowitz
When we began this series on the subject of the Internet, we thought about how we could present different perspectives without veering from the Chabad view and the instructions from our Rebbeim. That is how the idea came up for interviewing Rabbi Dr. Yosef Yitzchok Shagalow who, along with his shlichus work in Minneapolis, is also a psychologist who received a rare bracha from the Rebbe before he began his studies.
We asked R' Shagalow to tell the curious amongst us how a shliach ended up becoming a psychologist. He shared with us the following fascinating background:
I went on shlichus in 5746 to Minneapolis, Minnesota where I opened a Chabad house. For a few years, I was involved solely in shlichus work. At a certain point, I observed that many Jews who came to the Chabad house needed guidance in their lives, not only spiritually but also emotionally and psychologically. I felt I did not have the tools to help them sufficiently.
Since I was drawn to the field of psychology from a young age, I thought it might be a good idea to study it professionally. I asked the Rebbe and was told to do “as per the advice of knowledgeable friends.” I consulted with some knowledgeable friends, and they all encouraged me to study psychology. I wrote to the Rebbe again and received a bracha. I received my Masters from the University of S. Thomas in Minnesota and my doctorate from Argosy University.
After I started working in the field, a fellow shliach asked me in dismay, “How could you leave shlichus to be a psychologist?!” I repeated this to Rabbi Moshe Feller, shliach to Minnesota, and he said that my impact as a shliach would be greater and I would reach more people and fulfill my shlichus in a better way by operating in this manner (obviously, this applied to my specific situation to which the Rebbe gave his bracha and is not to be taken as a precedent for others).
So, for many years now, I run a Chabad house with minyanim and shiurim and I also work as a psychologist which I view as a shlichus too.
Does your area of expertise include the Internet?
For many years, I was involved in a different subject that is not at all connected to the Internet, but my expertise is in addictions and so the subject was also close to my heart. In recent years, many clients have approached me to address their Internet addictions, so I have become extensively involved in this area as well.
I want to point out that the Internet damages not only individuals or the minority, but nearly every person who uses it.
A while ago, I farbrenged with talmidim-shluchim at one of the yeshivos and we got on to the topic of the Internet. Before I began talking about it, I asked them whether there was anyone to whom this topic pertained or was there no point in talking about it since they were all very Chassidishe bachurim. After nobody said a word, I asked them directly: Is there anyone here to whom the topic is irrelevant?
Although it is very hard to say numbers, from what we know, it is a very widespread phenomenon. There is hardly anyone who has not been negatively affected by the Internet in some way or another.
As a psychologist, how do you define the problem of the Internet?
Putting aside the enormous religious-spiritual danger in being exposed to undesirable content and websites, the number one problem with the Internet is addiction. The Internet in an addictive product, the side effects of which include disengagement from one's surroundings, escaping family life, and more.
In life, we all encounter challenges within our families, our environment, etc. The Internet provides an escape since you don't have to deal with any of those challenges while on the Internet and you will always be accepted there as you are, no questions asked.
I sometimes sit with young men who tell me about their Internet usage, who say they can't understand how they waste so much time on the computer. One of them said to me, “All I wanted to do was to learn the daily Rambam online and I suddenly found myself spending hours surfing various websites.” My response was that he did not describe the situation accurately. He did not go over to the computer to say the Rambam, but to escape reality. The Rambam was just the excuse and the truth is that he went to the computer and not to the Rambam.
The problem gets more serious for someone who is alone, physically or emotionally, since then the computer is his friend and he is unable to get off of it and he wastes innumerable hours on it.
Obviously, the addiction is not to the computer, but to what the computer and Internet provide. This is a danger that we don't think about, but is one of the biggest problems one can imagine. The Internet and computer cause us to lose out in our personal lives, since our personal lives demand a lot of work and the computer provides us with the illusion that we can get the same relationships without effort.
For example, in real life we need to be open, accepting, and even vulnerable and of course it is possible to be hurt. On the Internet though, someone can be so-called friends with lots of people without real openness and with hardly any risk of being hurt. We exchange the real world for an imaginary world.
Are you saying that the Internet is addictive?
I am saying that the Internet has the same characteristics as any other addiction. The definition of an addiction is a psychological dependency on a substance or activity. Addiction is characterized by compulsive behavior that is aimed at obtaining the addictive substance, which continues even when it leads to negative results and is at the expense of other important needs, both psychological and material.
Every addiction has three components: tolerance, avoidance and withdrawal. “Tolerance” is when a person gets used to the addictive element so that he is no longer satisfied with the previous amount and feels a desire for more. “Avoidance” is when he makes repeated attempts to stop the addiction. “Withdrawal” is when he stops doing it and feels empty.
In my experience, those who use a computer a lot, spending hours on the Internet, have all three symptoms and thus it is definitely an addiction.
Why don't you emphasize those aspects of the Internet that are a spiritual danger (i.e. inappropriate images) and a far greater problem than addiction?
Those aspects are definitely an addiction and are dangerous not only to religious Jews, but even to goyim (l'havdil). Couples come to me who aren't Jewish whose lives have been destroyed because of these things. I heard in the name of Rabbi Heller of Crown Heights that a computer with Internet should be treated with the same din as seclusion with a woman, but the truth is that it is far more serious because in the din of yichud there is still natural shame. When a person is alone with the computer, there is no shame involved and so the danger is greater.
If someone has free access to Internet without a filter, the chances of a person's innocence being retained are zero. In normal Internet usage, a person ends up seeing things that no Chassidishe bachur or adult should see in his life, but people are losing their sensitivity to these things.
I myself do not have a computer in the house or in the office. I have a Smartphone that is connected to email for work purposes, but the Internet is otherwise locked with a pass code that I don't know. If I want to visit a website, I have to ask my wife. But even someone who, for whatever reason, needs the Internet and got permission from a rav to bring a computer into his house, must have an effective filter, must have the computer in a public place where other people are, and must have set times for computer and Internet usage. A person needs to decide that he is going to use it for a certain amount of time, and at a pre-determined time he shuts it and walks away. When there are clear rules and everyone knows what they are, it greatly lessens the ability to waste time and to stay online unnecessarily, which is one of the things that lead people to enter sites that they don't want to visit.
Are you talking about youth or adults?
About adults too, of course. A teenaged girl came to me with very serious social problems. I looked into her background and there didn't seem to be any logical reason for her acting out, until she told me that it was impossible to speak to her father because he was on the computer all day. Towards the end of our meeting, her father came to talk to me and I saw what she was talking about. Even as the father spoke to me, he was using his cell phone to read emails, respond to them, and check out websites.
If someone thinks that his computer usage is his own business and doesn't affect his family, he’s wrong. It affects everything and everyone around him, and those who suffer from it most are those family members who don't get the attention they deserve, since the computer is used as an escape from interacting with the family.
I sometimes hear women saying that they don't have a husband since he is married to the computer. Whenever they talk to him, he says, “Yeah, yeah,” but he can't get off the computer.
When a child goes over to his father as he sits at the computer and his father says, “One minute,” the child gets the message that the computer is more important than he is. The child interprets it as the computer being the most important thing in his father's life. It shouldn’t be a surprise if later the child uses a computer whenever he has free time.
That all relates to regular computer and Internet usage. The problem is that much greater when the person is viewing inappropriate material. As we said about the prohibition of yichud, Chazal did not only prohibit the resulting sin, but even forbade being secluded together. With the computer too, the problem is not only with inappropriate sites but the ability to visit them, because if there is no distancing, one can easily stumble.
A woman came to me and said she did not understand what’s the problem with allowing unfiltered Internet in her house. She said there are bad things in the world but we still live in the world, and we should regard the Internet in the same way.
I told her I would try answering her question later on. Towards the end of our meeting, I told her that I had a very important book for her that could help her with her problems. It's a wonderful book that helped many people, but it has one problem. After 250 pages there are things that are not very modest and she should be careful not to read those pages and she should tell her children not to look past that page.
When the woman refused to take the book, I asked her why. She said she wasn't willing to bring a book like this into her home when it presented a constant danger. She certainly couldn't rely on her children not looking at the immodest pictures in the book …
HOW TANYA TREATS ADDICTION
Do you consider addiction as a psychological illness that requires special treatment?
Without getting into it deeply, when we talk about an addiction, we are referring to compulsive behavior. That means that the person doesn't want to do something, but does it anyway. It becomes unstoppable behavior.
There is a letter from the Rebbe on a similar subject, written to an alcoholic who tried again and again to wean himself off drinking but kept failing. The Rebbe refers to this as an illness and writes that he should go to a doctor in this field, since today there are ways of treating it. The Rebbe also provides practical advice, such as not going around with cash in his pocket so as to minimize access to alcohol (in our discussion, this would mean to stop using the Internet). At the end of the letter, the Rebbe recommends knowing Mishnayos by heart, which will occupy him with positive things.
We see that the Rebbe treats addiction as an illness that needs treatment and not just stronger willpower to combat it.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski is considered an expert on addictions. He once visited me in my home and we got to talking about Tanya. He said everyone knows the Alter Rebbe was a genius and a tzaddik, but what amazes him time and again is the Alter Rebbe's unbelievable knowledge of psychology. He quoted what it says in Tanya about the wicked being full of regrets and he explained that this describes a person with an addiction, who did something enough times that he can no longer stop himself even though he truly regrets it afterward. That is what it means when it says that the wicked are controlled by their hearts and are not in control of their hearts.
As a professional, I see that one of the problems is denial. A person can sit at the computer for hours and be addicted to reading the news or to a social network or things worse than that, but he denies it and says he can stop if he wants to.
As a professional, what advice would you offer to someone who is addicted to the Internet or to parents who discover that their child is addicted to the Internet?
Many err when they think that Internet addiction is a moral failing which shows a lack of faith or bad chinuch. The truth is that it usually has nothing to do with chinuch or emuna, because the pitfalls are mainly associated with unsupervised exposure which causes deterioration and loss of control over certain areas of one's life.
It is important to know that this is a test that the best and strongest people can fall into if they don't have the requisite control and awareness. This message is important for those who think it won't happen to them, as well as for those who are faced with challenges and think they have become evil people and despair of ever changing. Neither approach is right. And from a psychological perspective, the two approaches are even dangerous.
If a parent discovers that her son is exposed to inappropriate material and is engaged in a difficult struggle, the first thing to do is to let the child know that no one will break him and that the fact that he was exposed does not turn him into a not-Chassidishe bachur or a bad person. If a bachur or child feels that he won't get support from his parents, he will just run further away and it will be even harder for the parents to handle the situation on their own. So the role of parents and teachers is to share the child’s pain and to provide support and mainly love.
Nobody has protection from tests in this world, but experience shows that children who have open relationships with their parents are less at risk than those children who can't talk openly with their parents. When the child knows that he can ask his parents for help, this diminishes the need to escape and the chances that he will end up on inappropriate sites. Parents need to talk to their children regularly and it makes no difference what they talk about; the main thing being that their children feel closeness to their parents and a sense of openness.
Sadly, many people don't know what it means to love. There is a lot said about “open communication” and about “understanding,” but that is not synonymous with love. Parents need to love their children, and children need to know that the ones who love them the most in this world are their parents, more than their friends and anyone else. Along with this love, children need boundaries, but when they feel that their parents don't love them, they are at much higher risk.
This is also true about our relationship with Hashem. A Jew needs to be religious because he believes in G-d, not that he believes in G-d because he is religious! Many people live in the absurd situation in which emuna is a product of their lifestyle instead of their lifestyle being a product of their emuna. We need to teach love for Hashem, not just as a level in a Maamer Chassidus, but as a basis for our lives, for without love it is very hard to fulfill Torah and mitzvos when we are exposed to the world around us.
So what can we do?
I am not a mashpia or a rav and my role is not to make public statements to Anash about how to change the situation. As a professional, I deal with those who are not succeeding in stopping their compulsive behaviors, and I get to hear sad stories every day about families breaking apart and other things that we really want to prevent.
There is a lot to be done to stop addictions like these, whether they are more serious or less so, but this requires individual treatment that is tailored to the situation. There are general principles that pertain to all Internet addiction, but even those require knowledge about how to implement them on a case-by-case basis.
My small but strong recommendation to parents and educators is to be aware of the importance of creating and fostering a caring relationship with children and students. Such relationships are the strongest defense that parents and teachers can provide against this challenge of the Internet. The crisis we are experiencing with the Internet is actually a crisis in our personal lives. When love isn't there in daily life, it is more likely that a person will fall prey to the Internet. The more we strengthen our ties with our children and students, the less likely they are to fall. This is one of the most important things we can do about the problem.
The very fact that we are discussing the topic and bringing it to people's awareness is important as well. Knowing that there is a problem, even if we don't yet know the best way to deal with it, is half the battle. We are moving in the right direction.
There was an Internet Asifa in May in New York. There were no magical solutions, but the message was clear: We know there is a problem and we want to deal with it. In Eretz Yisroel there was a meeting of Chabad rabbanim and people in chinuch and they didn't innovate anything either, but the message was similar. It provides the possibility for creating a change.
Teachers, mashpiim and rabbis need to talk about the Internet. Those who are facing problems want to know there is someone to talk to. We should be conveying the message that yes, there is someone who will listen to you and understand what you're dealing with.
Some people need professional help; here too, it is important that such people feel they are not alone and that someone understands them and loves them despite their problems.
I am sure that many readers will decide to take action, to get rid of the Internet or to put on a filter, but the decision is not enough. You need to do it!