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.