The most immediately obvious characteristics of Charedi society, both to those observing from the outside and to those of us living within it, are the restrictions it places upon its members. These restrictions envelop every hour of our life: from the clothes that we wear, to the food that we eat, to spending two hours out of every day in shul. Charedi life come with an extra price tag and, at the same time, restricts the range of realistic careers and life goals we can pursue. We stick out like a sore thumb wherever we go and, in practice, have a limited ability to form friendships with people outside the community.

With these restrictions come many advantages, but what I think is not often enough appreciated is how some of these restrictions are in and of themselves enormous benefits and how, somewhat paradoxically, they actually allow us greater freedom in many areas of life. The most obvious example of this, I believe, is the absolute prohibition still enforced throughout the community on giving children and teenagers access to social media. It’s high time that we started celebrating this as one of the crowning achievements of our community.

Before explaining why this is so, let’s first look at how the situation we have today came to be. With the rise of the internet and its rapid penetration into all corners of society, the Charedi policy was a blanket ban. It quickly became clear to Rabonim and communal leaders that they had no choice but to give heterim for business use, but they still believed that the ban on personal use could be maintained. The internet was seen as the next incarnation of the television set: a dangerous enemy threatening to pollute the holy camp, but one that could be defeated.

In the last five years, however, that reality has completely broken down. Almost every Charedi person between the ages of 20 and 40 has easy access to the internet and ordinary aspects of Charedi life now take place on the world wide web, whether it be fundraising for mosdos, live streaming of Rebbishe Chasunahs, or the Kol Mevaser that brings the list of weekly simchas to our inboxes. The absolute prohibition on minors using social media has, however, been maintained. Every Charedi school makes this prohibition a non-negotiable condition for accepting pupils and this condition is adhered to faithfully by parents.

The benefits of this being so can scarcely be overstated. A recent study published in the Lancet has confirmed what tens of millions of parents and educators have already seen with their own eyes: social media use among youth is a mental health catastrophe. Regular social media use is closely linked with increased depression and anxiety, poor sleep patterns, bullying, and even suicide. There is an ongoing effort to fight the extreme outcomes of social media use, such as online grooming or radicalisation, but the ordinary social media habits of teenage users come with a significantly increased risk of mental illness.

The sordid truth that becomes clearer with each passing day is that social media is the visual equivalent of junk food. It hacks into the pleasure networks in the brain by providing a simulation of the social cooperation and bonding they are designed to make us seek out. This is dangerous enough for adults, but for children, whom we rightly deny the choice to drive, smoke, or drink alcohol, it is an absolute disaster.

The fact that, almost uniquely within the western world, the typical Charedi teenager has zero engagement with this online narcotic is a testament to the value of one of Charedi Judaism’s most fundamental – and controversial – principles: חדש אסור מן התורה (innovation is forbidden by the Torah). The simplistic reading of this slogan is that Judaism should simply be frozen in its 18th century form, but if that were so we would hardly be able to wear polyester bekeshes. A more correct understanding takes the phrase as a slightly hyperbolic way of saying that all new developments have to be assessed on the principle of “guilty until proven innocent”. While wider society rushes at an ever-increasing pace into changes, the ramifications of which are totally unknown, we choose to forego the benefits of being early adopters until we are sure that a given innovation can be absorbed without damaging our way of life. When it comes to social media use for young people, however, the results from wider society are in: it stinks.

What I worry about, though, is that having ambled into this situation without conscious planning, we will amble out of it into something much less desirable. The same grassroots process in which ordinary Charedim defied the prohibition on the internet until it came to be recognised as something kosher could potentially happen here, unless we make a concerted effort to explain why social media specifically is uniquely harmful to children. If this happens and brings with it the same crisis facing other U.K. adolescents, it will be quite impossible to turn the clock back.

I have talked to many headteachers and school leaders from mainstream Jewish and non-Jewish schools and they all report the same reality: a total inability to limit the dominance that social media has over their students’ lives. The absolute most that the best, most organised schools can hope to achieve is to make pupils turn off their phones for the duration of the school day. Behind the rhetoric of digital choice and freedom, the reality is that the environment in which most children grow up is now shaped not by their parents, nor by elected governments, but by Silicon Valley oligarchs working on algorithms designed to monetize puberty.

Through three parts instinct and one-part luck, the Charedi community has retained one of the most fundamental freedoms of all, the freedom of parents to rear their own children.

With freedom, of course, comes great responsibility and there is much more our community can and must do with the power we still retain over our children’s environment, in particular for the most and least academically able boys. We also have an increased responsibility to educate our children in the potential dangers of the internet because those teenagers who fall through the cracks and use social media are even more at risk than those in mainstream society. Rather than trying to hide the reality of social media from children, we should help them to understand its dangers and why they are so lucky not to be given the ‘freedom’ to use it.

First and foremost, however, we are long overdue for a celebration of what our community has been able to achieve so that we can preserve it for the future. I do not know how wider society will be able to deal with the ever-greater sophistication of unregulated social media companies looking to hook young people, or if parents in wider society will be able to regain some of the freedom to keep their children safe that was taken from them without notice or consent. What I do know is that our community has achieved something that most people think is impossible for anyone other than the Amish, and has done so while living in the greatest urban metropolises on earth. Let’s make a plan to keep it that way.

17 thoughts on “Social Media: the freedom to forbid

  1. I am pleased to see this blog coming back to life. I would like to talk about mobiles. They are the real curse not the internet. Go to any kollell everyone is on it. Go to many shuls ditto. Is this yiddishkiet, is the davenning, and is this learning. For a start a woman because of yichud should not know where her husband is and expect him home any time. Not she should be asking him every minute where he is and what he is doing. So far no one has even thought of this only the internet. As long as you have a kosher phone it makes no difference when you use it. What kind of an impression does it make on children seeing their rebbe on it all the time. This is apart from all the loshon hora channels and the ones who make fun of yidishkeit. This is the work of the yetser hora make something else ossur then we wont think about the real things. Is it really necessary to bring one to shul. Cant you leave it at home or in your car. What will you be missing. How did we manage all these years without. It is about time some rabbonim who dont have one (if they exist) started speaking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alan Ross – you do not understand how a blog works.
      Instead of flooding Eli’s blog with comments that are off the point, start your own blog. But while you are on Eli’s blog, you need to respond only MayInyan LeInyan BeOso Inyan.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I notice who this post was liked by and my question is why doesnt he delete my posts if he doesnt like them.

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  2. “Every Charedi school makes this prohibition a non-negotiable condition for accepting pupils and this condition is adhered to faithfully by parents.”

    How do you know?

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  3. I have yet to see any advantages the chareidi lifestyle you describe offers, over a serious non-chareidi orthodox person. There are plenty of non serious chareidim (just listen to the ellul shacharis shofar happily being blown at noon at chasdidish shteibelach all over the world) and serious modern orthodox persons that can learn the socks off many chareidim.

    Its a chitzoious oriented lifestyle with no more depth than any other form of orthodox lifestyle.

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    1. Can you seriously and honestly state that, when it comes to adulthood, the boys in your type of school, on average know more torah and can learn better than a typical boy that has had a full limmudei chol curriculum? No sir.

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      1. I should add that apart from a small number of genuine chassidim in small enclaves, there are relatively few real chareidim in chutz le’orotz. Certainly not in Golders Green where your school is sited.

        It’s all chitzonious. As you well know. Restrictive lifestyle my foot. Just look at the homes, the cars, the holidays and the women’s clothing. Not to mention the typical fress up (Sushi and all).

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  4. I should add that apart from a small number of genuine chassidim in small enclaves, there are relatively few real chareidim in chutz le’orotz. Certainly not in Golders Green where your school is sited.

    It’s all chitzonious. As you well know. Restrictive lifestyle my foot. Just look at the homes, the cars, the holidays and the women’s clothing. Not to mention the typical fress up (Sushi and all).

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    1. In a letter to the tribune today Rabbi Abenson replies to my previous letter. I find his letter very confusing and shall go through it.
      He starts off saying that he has found another crisis which he calls aleph bais crisis and suggests it is because of secular infiltration.
      If anything in the UK we always learned aleph bais with what he calls the secular method and there never was any crisis till now. I understand he comes from Manchester and both frum schools there used the ‘secular’ method and were headed by German refugees whose children today are great talmiday chachomim. One reads in the news sheets of more and more ‘kriah’ experts opening shop and one wonders why. He is right it is a crisis but one which he is perpetuating by making sure it stays one.
      He goes on that a boy had a fat binder full of aleph bais sheets and was using the secular method meaning the phonetic one. I just dont believe it. First of all they wouldnt be called aleph bais sheets and second of all there is no need for this if one uses the phonetic method. Maybe there is another secular method what I am unaware of.
      He goes on with ‘velvety vais’, I have never heard this before and wonder when it started.
      He then says he believes in visual aids, I dont, they may have their place in some circumstances but not in teaching phonetic reading.
      He goes on again that children mix up letter which have the same sounds. He doesnt talk about chasidim who mix up vowels which many have the same sound. I wrote children grow out of it, but he wont give in and even claims they cause disruption. I would like to see which school which uses phonetics agrees with him. He goes on that using phonetics is ‘complicated’ as if his system isnt more complicated. The child has to remember the name of the letter and the name of the vowel. And he goes on that they lose the inspiration to learn. I would challenge him that any child that uses this system has more inspiration and is less disruptive.
      He afterward gives a summary.
      1 Teachers dont go through it again and and again. So he agrees that that has to be done. What does he want from the poor child. Using phonetics this isnt at all necessary.
      2 He claims they dont understand it. I must say this is news to me. When one learns to read must one understand it. I have come to the conclusion that he has no idea of how to teach. He claims in English they do. So that
      is because they speak it. Not because you have to understand it to be able to read.
      3 He goes on about gedolim. In Manchester the two frum schools never seemed to have heard about it.
      I would question his gedolim if by using the mesora children end up not being able to read and as he himself agrees there is a chinuch crisis, although the crisis is by those who use the mesora method as all these new ‘kriah’ experts will tell you not by those who use the phonetic one, would they rather children not be able to read rather than use the phonetic method

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      1. Phonics has been used to teach alef bais for centuries. Kometz beis boh is phonics. Exactly the same as English ‘sAT’ is sat. Hebrew is one of the easiest languages to teach using phonics. It is all phonics.

        You can’t use any other method in chutz la’retz because children don’t understand Hebrew at the age they are learning to read it. Nobody has ever taught Hebrew reading with Janet and John type books, which was the system before phonics (ie learn the sounds of letters and then learn whole real words).

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