Fifteen years after the Internet began penetrating our camp, its presence has become a fact of life, no matter how you look at it. We need to look not just at how marvelous it is, but also at its numerous destructive drawbacks. This is part one in a series of articles about the Internet so that every parent, mechanech and bachur can learn what the dangers are and how to handle them.
At a time when the VCR was muktze machmas mee'us in the frum world, Lubavitchers watched videos of the Rebbe. At a time when frum groups shunned the radio, Lubavitchers knew that the Rebbe considered the radio a powerful force that was created by Hashem, and they used it to spread Chassidus to thousands of people. At a time when the frum world (in Eretz Yisroel) viewed malls as off-limits, dangerous places, Lubavitchers did Mivtza T’fillin there on Friday afternoons after a week of learning Torah.
The question is: why is there a difference in approach and how come it didn't harm the Lubavitchers when they encountered the outside world?
The answer lies in the chinuch we received which clarified for us what is problematic about a VCR and a radio and what advantages they have. Every bachur knew why he was going to the mall; he knew about the lack of tznius, but he also knew that he was there for another purpose, hafatzas ha’maayanos.
The Internet is altogether different. Quietly, without fanfare, computers have entered our lives. They were bought for good purposes but without any education and awareness of the dangers inherent in them. The Internet did not merely enter the house; it is on the cell phone, in our pockets.
Fifteen years after the Internet began penetrating our camp, its presence is a fact of life, no matter how you look at it. We need to look not just at how marvelous it is, but also at its numerous destructive drawbacks.
It's not every day that we face a challenge such as this. This is a challenge which has united everyone regardless as to world outlook. We can meet the challenge.
Rabbi Sternberg, I heard you give a lecture a few months ago about the dangers of the Internet. The first question that occurred to me was: Why are you involved in this unpleasant topic?
I ask myself the same question, but at the same time, I know we don't always have the privilege of choosing what to get involved in and what not. One of the most important principles in the world of chinuch is that a good mechanech must know his students well. He has to get into their world and know exactly what challenges they are dealing with. Then he needs to do all he can to help them. Unfortunately, young people are facing various challenges and sometimes educators prefer to ignore a certain problem and focus on other problems. However, the Internet has become the disease of the generation. Educators cannot hide their heads in the sand anymore. They must get involved with the problem and find ways of dealing with it.
As a mashpia in the beis midrash of Oholei Torah and as director of a yeshiva summer camp for mesivta bachurim, I am very involved with bachurim ages fourteen till marriage age. Often the relationship continues after marriage. Since our relationship is very open and I encourage bachurim to talk to me about anything going on in their lives, especially matters connected to avodas Hashem, I became exposed to the subject of the Internet and began talking about it, sometimes at the end of farbrengens.
The first time I spoke in public about problems with the Internet, I was taken aback by the numerous questions that bachurim came to me with afterward as they told me what they were experiencing and what they were dealing with. So I unwillingly became the address to turn to on this subject. Other mashpiim who became aware of certain situations referred bachurim to me. Without exaggeration, hardly a day goes by that I am not asked by a bachur or young married man for help in this area.
Why does it seem that you are practically the only one dealing with this while other mashpiim and educators prefer not to deal with it?
That's true but not precise. There is more awareness lately and for the same reason that I started getting involved, other mashpiim are also seeing what a problem it is and are getting involved. But it's true that many of the rabbanim and mashpiim are simply afraid to touch the subject. Aside from that, you have to remember that the phenomenon is relatively new and basic guidance is lacking even for mechanchim and mashpiim who don't know what to do with this hot potato.
On the other hand, it is important that we remember that if we don't talk about the problem, it won't go away and will only grow ch”v. The problem is here and we have two options: Either we wake up or our children will wake us up. When I was first exposed to the problem, I naively thought that it involved a small percentage of bachurim and young married men, but as time goes by, I see that it is way bigger than that.
Each time I have spoken about it, more and more people approached me for help. I must sadly say that this phenomenon is of significant proportions. I know that there are many people who will think I am a Cassandra, a prophet of doom, or even that I am delusional, but I am involved and know the facts and the facts speak for themselves.
This is actually a universal problem affecting all Jewish communities everywhere. Some communities tried to ban the use of the Internet, but this turned out to be impractical. As time went on, rabbanim realized they had to get involved and deal with the problem. Bans would not work and effective solutions had to be found. Even non-Jews realize how destructive the Internet can be and there are many non-Jewish organizations that are attempting to address this matter.
The astonishing thing is that the more that young people become aware of the problem and seek help for it, the parents seem to understand less about it. Young people know there is a problem that has to be dealt with, while older people are sure it's nothing serious. Bachurim come to me and say that they tried to speak to their parents about putting a filter on the computer, but the parents made light of it and said it wasn't necessary.
A year ago, a bachur came to me and poured out his heart. The Internet was ruling his life. He cried and asked for help and I told him that today, professional help is available that can help a person get out of the addiction, but it would cost money. He recoiled at the idea of having to talk to his parents about this and I offered to talk to the father myself. I said I wouldn't tell him the problem, but would just explain that as the bachur's mashpia I think his son needs therapy.
When I spoke to the father, since he knows that I address the topic of the Internet, he suspected that this was the problem and he refused to hear another word. He said accusingly, “You think my son has a problem with it? How dare you suspect my son of that? I know him inside out and he is a Chassidishe bachur who would not have anything to do with this.” Sadly, this story still does not have a happy ending since the bachur continues to struggle on his own. His parents just don't get it.
Every summer I run a yeshivas Kayitz program for Chassidishe bachurim who want to grow in their learning and hiskashrus. The bachurim know already that the final farbrengen of the season is devoted to the topic of the Internet. One of the boys, the son of a shliach, committed to not using the Internet unnecessarily (i.e. reading the news or for entertainment purposes) until he married. If he would have a genuine need to use it, he would do so only with a filter and with another person in the vicinity.
A few weeks went by and I got a call from his father, the shliach. “What did you do to my son?”
I had no idea what he was referring to. He went on to say, “Because of you, he doesn't use the Internet.”
I explained that it wasn't because of me, but because his son had become convinced that it was dangerous for him. The father said that his son had previously run the Chabad house website, sending out weekly emails etc. and he wasn't doing that anymore. “I know my son and know precisely what he does with the computer, and he has nothing to do with off-limit things.”
I asked the father why he didn't do the computer work himself and he said it was because he was not so familiar with how to use the Internet.
Well, that sums up the problem. The older generation is not familiar with how to use a computer and it is convinced that all is well since it hasn't been exposed to that which the younger generation is exposed to. The older generation doesn't understand access blocking programs and filters, and all the ins and outs of Internet usage, but the younger generation does.
What do you think of the fact that bachurim today are living in a world that is completely different than that of their parents?
In order to respond, I'll compare it to the difference between a longtime citizen and a new immigrant. A new immigrant can be a successful person who will learn the language and culture of his new adopted country, but he usually won't know how to speak idiomatically and with the proper usage of slang. That explains the difference between someone born into the world as we know it today, and older people who learned to use the Internet later in life. Most adults know how to use the Internet. They can see when the train is leaving, pay their electric bill, etc. but they don't live with the Internet. Young people were born into the Internet reality and they don't know any other world but this.
The older person, who comes from a different world, learns how to use a number of features and thinks it's marvelous. Young people, born into this reality, run their lives with it. A bachur came to me and asked me what I think about Facebook. I explained the problems with it and he agreed with everything I said, but then countered, “There is one thing you don't understand. You think that I am a yeshiva bachur who uses Facebook. The truth is that I am a Facebook bachur who sometimes goes to yeshiva. Facebook is my home and sometimes, I leave home for a shiur. As soon as it's over, I go back 'home' to Facebook.”
Okay, I understand that there is a problem that has to be addressed, but why talk about it in public? Are you not afraid that this will get bachurim who are not using the Internet curious to see what it's all about?
Today, kids who are allowed access to the internet are exposed to inappropriate things before the age of 11 (and research has shown that this average age is constantly dropping). We are not talking about something new. This is a prevalent problem and not talking about it means ignoring what's here.
The hanhala of a certain yeshiva in the US decided they had to discuss the topic and they asked me to address hundreds of students. Afterward, dozens of bachurim came over and asked for help. They were all Chassidishe bachurim! What I see is that this is a problem that is widespread and even if there are still some who are embarrassed to talk about it, they know good and well what it's about. We are not exposing anyone to anything they didn't know about before.
So we have no choice but to talk about the problem and give our talmidim the tools to handle it. Think about it: If there was a drug problem in our communities r”l, what method would be more successful in preventing people from using drugs – providing guidance starting at a young age by someone responsible (parents or teachers) or, simply allowing them to be exposed to drugs through their friends telling them what great fun it is? Obviously, if you don't talk about it and don't explain, they will learn about it from somewhere else and get a warped view; the results can be disastrous. Yes, we need to be careful about how we speak and what we say, but we don't have the option of remaining silent. That is because if they don't hear from us how dangerous the Internet is, they will hear from others how marvelous it is.
It sounds reasonable, but isn’t the Chabad approach not to deal with such topics at all? Speaking about it merely provokes the Evil Inclination.
Yes, that is Chabad's approach in general but the Rebbe himself wrote and said explicitly that things have changed because the world has changed. There is a letter from the Rebbe (Igros Kodesh vol. 9, p. 24) in which the Rebbe writes to a distinguished rav in reaction to the seforim Taharas Yom Tov in which the author writes about the severity of the sin in not properly observing shemiras ha'bris and about how to rectify the problem etc. This is what the Rebbe says:
Although it has not been the practice among Anash to publish special seforim to explain the reason for the sin and not even to address this publicly … in this country where there is a tremendous breach in this sin among certain groups, and it is as open territory in their eyes … and due to our many sins nobody speaks up, protests and exposes their shame … there is room to say that one should publish and publicize regarding the severity of the sin and the [spiritual] damage, and also to speak directly about this, if only to save the souls of Jewish bachurim from descending etc. and mainly – to also strengthen and increase the attentiveness of the teachers to the situation, for to a great extent it depends on them to rectify this out-of-control situation.
The letter was written in 5714/1954, and of course things have only deteriorated since then. If back then the Rebbe wrote that it was time to start talking and writing about it, there is no question that today, the Rebbe's approach is we should address it. As the Rebbe writes, speaking about it is to save bachurim from spiritual descent.
In a yechidus that the Belzer Rebbe had with the Rebbe on 4 Adar II 5741/1981, the Rebbe spoke about a number of things that were done a certain way in the past, but had to be changed, such as founding schools for girls and having girls learn Torah or publishing a religious newspaper, all of which were out of the question in the past. Today, everyone agrees that they are necessary.
The Rebbe then touched upon a topic from which we can definitely extrapolate to the Internet:
“The same applies to Family Purity. I spoke with rabbanim and demanded that they speak about Family Purity. They said, 'How can we do that? Tznius!' Their proof was their father was a rav, their grandfather was a rav, their great-grandfather was a rav and they never spoke about Family Purity. Whoever thought of speaking publicly about Family Purity? It is the opposite of tznius.
“I asked them whether they tried to inquire among the members of their communities regarding their knowledge of the matter. They said it wasn't necessary. They knew the schools they attended (public schools and universities) and knew that in their curriculum there were classes on marriage related matters.
“I asked: If they learn about this regardless, what do you gain by being silent? As soon as you start talking to them you will see that they know ten times more than you think and so, why not talk to them about Family Purity? But the reality is that special efforts are needed so that they know of these matters, even the basics, of Family Purity. In the meantime they discuss it, raise questions and provide explanations but the girl grows up and when you miss out on today you have no way of knowing whether you can correct things tomorrow!”
Likewise, the Rebbe said in a farbrengen decades ago that a rav had asked whether he should talk to the women and girls of his community about family purity. The rav added that perhaps he should refrain from talking about such a topic as it was not modest to talk about these topics in public and the girls are not ready for this. The Rebbe replied that the girls know about these topics better than him and his role is to provide them with the Jewish and halachic perspective.
It is also important to clarify the difference between the Chabad approach and the approach of other frum groups. In other groups, they talk constantly about what is forbidden and the effects on the soul, while in Chabad the approach is not to talk about the actual prohibition, but to work with the preventive approach. That means, not to deal with the prohibition and fear of sin, but to take precautions against the dangers in technology which can be used for prohibited pursuits.
If a dangerous person would be on the loose in the neighborhood, responsible parents would tell their children that the man is dangerous and to stay away from him. Nobody would say that they don't want to educate their children in that way and don't want their kids to know about bad people because it might cause them to befriend him.
There is a big difference between speaking about various desires of the animal soul which can increase those desires, and speaking about the dangers of going to a certain place, or in our case – buying certain gadgets with which we can visit dangerous places. Even when speaking about the negative desires themselves, the Rebbe writes that sometimes there is no choice but to talk about them, but the second kind of talking, about dangerous things, is something responsible parents and teachers need to do.
A Chassidishe bachur told me in tears how he was ensnared. It all began when he used the Internet to buy a plane ticket. That's legitimate enough, but there was an ad there that led him further and further and ultimately, he couldn't extricate himself.
A parent can justifiably say: My son is a Chassidishe bachur who is completely immersed in learning and hiskashrus. What do you want from me?
I am sorry to disappoint this parent but I have yet to find a category of bachurim that is immune to the dangers of the Internet. No category of bachurim comes with a guarantee which would enable parents to relax and be confident that their children are safe. At first I thought that bachurim with a certain cooler temperament would surely not be in danger, but I was wrong. Then I thought that Chassidishe bachurim who are not worldly were certainly no cause for concern, but I was wrong again. And so on. Every time I thought I had found a type of bachur that could definitely be excluded, I discovered there is no such thing.
In fact, if there is a bachur for whom the Internet is not dangerous, he should probably see a doctor because something is not quite right with him. Although there are many people who use the Internet without any problems, we still daven every day not to be tested. Who knows what could happen if sorely tested? You have to understand that a bachur doesn't need to search for forbidden things on the Internet in order to fall; the forbidden things find him! This is a billion dollar industry whose sole purpose is to find more people to visit their sites. There are all kinds of tricks including both straightforward and misleading ads, pop-ups and emails that seem innocent. It is all designed to entice people.
A Chassidishe bachur told me in tears how he was ensnared. It all began when he used the Internet to buy a plane ticket. That's legitimate enough, but there was an ad there that led him further and further and ultimately, he couldn't extricate himself. This was not a bachur who went there in curiosity. He was a bachur who innocently used the Internet, but someone out there was looking to get him, although he didn't know it.
It sounds scary, but the point here is not to frighten anyone; the point is we should know to be wary. There are many thieves and murderers in the world and our job is not to be scared of them, but to watch out, lock the door and take other precautions.
Everybody is created with certain natural inclinations and an animal soul. We are not tzaddikim and most of us are not the beinoni of Tanya. If we withstand a difficult test, that doesn't mean everyone will. I heard an interesting thing from a mashpia about this. The beinoni doesn't despise evil; he doesn't allow the desire to rise from the heart to the mind to contemplate it, a process that takes seconds from the moment the heart desires evil until the mind dispels the thought. Nowadays, a computer is faster than the beinoni and when a person goes to a certain site and suddenly another site pops up, it takes less than five seconds and sometimes it is too late since it jumped directly from his heart to his mind and there was no time to stop it.
Every parent should give thought to the fact that even if he himself was a Chassidishe bachur, he had challenges in watching where he looked and we can assume that he did not always conquer his yetzer. Parents need to understand that nowadays the tests have changed. What previously was only possible in one's thoughts, is now possible to see and more. If a parent could have failed with forbidden thoughts, his son could fail with forbidden sights. This is why the tests of today are much harder. If a person fails once, it is hard to prevent a second time from occurring because it becomes addictive.
What makes the Internet so attractive, far more than other media such as newspapers and television which also entail prohibitions?
It's an interesting question and I've given a lot of thought to the differences between them. Take newspapers for example. You would hardly find a Lubavitcher who would dare buy and bring the New York Times into his home, but many people visit their website. This is despite the fact that the website is worse than the paper. People won't bring a television into their homes but they will watch television programs via the Internet.
People say that every person has a red line that he would never cross, but if we check, we will find that even if we don't cross it, our red line has “feet” and it moves ever so slowly as we get closer to it. In the technological age it grew wheels and in the Internet age it grew wings.
I think it can be explained as follows. A person lives in two parallel universes, the world of action and speech and the world of thought. In the world of action and speech, every normal person is concerned about how he looks and sounds, but in the world of thought every person is actually crazy. People allow themselves to be swept along in their imaginings and think about how they would like to be and all sorts of things that they would never allow themselves to talk about, let alone do. For example, take the attribute of arrogance. In our thoughts, we boast and think we are the best in the world, but in the world of speech, most people realize that it will sound bizarre and they don't talk that way.
To a certain extent, the world of the Internet is perceived by us as part of the world of thought. Although there are “people” on the Internet, we don't relate to them as such. So we allow ourselves to do and say things on the Internet that we wouldn't consider doing in the real world. It is easier to send an email of apology and to ask forgiveness than to meet the person and ask him for forgiveness face to face. The email provides us with cover and gives us the feeling that we don't really exist, that the other person doesn't really exist, and the request for forgiveness doesn't really exist. And this is despite the fact that afterward we might meet the person in real life.
That's what happens to us with the Internet. Buying a newspaper takes place in the world of action, but to visit the newspaper's website is not seen as a similar action, even though it is far more dangerous.
In the world of action, a person generally focuses on one thing at a time and doesn't jump from topic to topic, but in the world of thought it's different. When we think, we sometimes have no idea how we got to the thought we are thinking. We suddenly start thinking about a topic that we hadn't been thinking about previously. On the Internet too, a person can reach a place that he didn't want to go to and he doesn't know how he got there. One link led to another and suddenly, he's there and he wonders why.
If there would be no difference between thought, speech and action and every thought that came to mind would be revealed to those around us and every desire we felt would immediately be realized, most people in the world would be in a mental hospital or in jail. It's not that we're bad people, but that in our thoughts there is no filter and no boundaries (unless we install them). That's the way it is with the Internet. When we sit alone with the computer without a filter and no protection, we are in the world of thought and can “do” everything we only dared to think about.
Is your message to constantly be suspicious of our children?
Not at all. I am saying to be careful. It is our responsibility as parents and mechanchim. My message is not to scare people but to get people to wake up. The time has come for us to realize that everything it says in Tanya is not about other people, but about us and our children. When Tanya talks about the animal soul and the yetzer ha’ra, it's not a nice saying for someone else but the reality of our lives. Yes, each of us, including me and you, has two neshamos and the first is the animal soul.
We all know that the laws of yichud apply to all of us and nobody thinks that the Torah obligates him in these laws because we suspect he will succumb. These laws are meant as protective fences for people like us who are born with a yetzer ha’ra, and who need to be aware of situations that can be dangerous for us.
If a young bachur would ask his father for a trip around the world with an unlimited credit card so he can fly unaccompanied and go wherever he pleases, would the father consent? Would a sane father provide his son with such an opportunity? That is precisely what we do when we provide our children with free access to the Internet.
It's important to understand that the Internet is not evil; it is a reflection of our world with everything it contains, the good along with the bad. The Internet takes the entire world and brings it into the house and our pocket.
If a young bachur would ask his father for a trip around the world with an unlimited credit card so he can fly unaccompanied and go wherever he pleases, would the father consent? Would a sane father provide his son with such an opportunity? That is precisely what we do when we provide our children with free access to the Internet. We provide our kids with a free ticket to anywhere in the world as well as an unlimited credit card to enter wherever he/she likes, speak to anyone, hear any view, listen to any song, view any movie, and plenty of other things that we would never give our children in the real world.
Actually, the Internet is a lot worse, because in the real world, you might be able to rely on your child not to fly to a dangerous locale, but since with the Internet you don't always have full control of where you might end up, you cannot say “I rely on you.”
What about a parent who says he wants to let his child learn from his own mistakes?
(Sarcastic): That's fine if he also doesn't teach his child the proper way to cross the street at the appropriate age, and when he's thirteen the parent gives him the keys to the car so he can learn from his own mistakes. As parents we have a responsibility, and there are things we can allow a child to learn on his own. There are also other things that are too dangerous, and we cannot allow him to learn from his own mistakes, because the child might get run over and won't remain in this world to be able to learn from his mistakes.
The same is true for the Internet. I cannot “rely on my child” and let him learn from his own mistakes, because there might not be anyone surviving to learn from the mistakes.
In the past, countries surrounded themselves with high walls until bombing made the walls useless. Then ditches and defenses were dug until missiles made them useless. Today, the most advance defense systems are losing their efficacy, because wars are taking place on the Internet with smart-viruses. It's the same spiritually. In the past, a community could surround itself with fences; then there were takanos and bans, but today that is all useless. We need authentic chinuch along with active steps to protect ourselves as much as possible.
Next week: what can we do to protect ourselves and our children from danger? In part two of the series, we will learn about tools we can use to provide safe Internet usage.
WHAT ABOUT GIRLS?
Generally speaking, with girls the problem of inappropriate content on the Internet is less severe, and incidents in which girls are brought down by the Internet are fewer than found by boys. However, there is still a serious problem with exposure to the Internet, which directly affects the level of tznius amongst us and the girls' outlook on life.
The idea of fashion makes no sense and has nothing to do with whether something looks good or not. It's just that if everyone is wearing something, it becomes nice. In the past, when someone showed up wearing the latest fashion, people looked at him as a crazy person since it simply didn't look attractive. But the eye slowly gets used to it and more people start wearing it and finally, everyone dresses that way, but that was already after the style changed …
Today, what is happening is that we are immediately exposed to all sorts of styles of dress that are completely goyish and we are swept after them without thinking about their lack of modesty.
This happens because today nobody is living in a small town or sheltered neighborhood. We live in a global village, which means that whoever lives in the world of the Internet is actually living in the middle of Paris and New York, London and Moscow, and is constantly exposed to this way of life and learns from it. This influence is primarily on women and girls. The results are not limited to dress but affect thought, speech and action.
Teachers and principals in girls' schools are alarmed by the damage that the Internet causes with all sorts of perspectives and questions that come from surfing inappropriate sites. There are additional dangers in that they don't always know who they are friends with online.