By Dr. Eli Shapiro
In October 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a press release about allowing airlines to “expand the use of personal electronics” in flight. What followed were the Federal Communications Commission and the United States airline industry strongly considering in-flight phone calls to be part of that expansion.
Immediately came to mind images of animated inconsiderate callers, discussing everything from personal medical issues to pedantic and mindless chatter at volumes that rivaled the engines of the 747s, and I thought, “Why? Why can’t we disconnect for a few hours? Why are we so dependent on technology that even in a traditionally digital-communications-free environment, we must connect?”
I recently found myself asking those questions again with the news of the imminent release of the Shabbos App. According to their website, the Shabbos App is an innovative app that enables Orthodox Jews, currently prohibited from using a smartphone on Shabbos, to enhance their experience “by using a smartphone on Shabbos.” I once again find myself asking the same “Why?”
While the ongoing debate has primarily focused on the halachic feasibility or inherent non-Shabbos nature of the Shabbos App, perhaps it would be worthwhile to look at it through the lens of social and psychological functioning as well. A recent study out of Kent State University suggested that avid cell-phone use in college-age students is associated with higher levels of anxiety and lower subjective well-being and academic performance, indicating that the more dependent you are on your cell phone, the more unhappy you are likely to be.
A May 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal identified the recent decline in the frequency and length of eye contact in face-to-face interactions that can lead to a decline in interpersonal emotional connectivity. Texas-based Quantified Impressions found that adults make eye contact 30–60 percent of the time in an average conversation, with much of that time being taken up by checking texts and e‑mails on their cell phones. They also find that, ideally, people should be making eye contact 60–70 percent of the time to create a sense of emotional connection.
The next time you are in a restaurant, just look at how many people are interacting with each other versus interacting with their devices. Some psychologists explain this phenomenon as FOMO, the “fear of missing out”—the fear of missing out on an important e‑mail, an important update, or an important event, when in fact we are missing out on real connectivity.
While cell phones and technology offer us much in the way of connectivity and accessibility, clearly there is collateral damage to our social and psychological well-being. Technology’s negative impact on social functioning is not a new phenomenon. With the advancements and affordability of televisions in the 1950s, millions of homes around the United States went from having family dinners at the table to having parallel dinners on the couch. This new “family activity” came at the expense of healthy family interactions. Numerous studies find a positive correlation between family dinners and family functioning, while the digital distractions, whether on the couch or at the table, have taken their toll.
Shabbos has always been our community’s opportunity to communicate and interact in a distraction-free environment. Perhaps the halachic prohibitions we encounter on Shabbos effectively serve as our obligatory mandate to disconnect in order to connect. We are presented with what in fact is not a restriction, but rather an opportunity. Our ever-deepening relationship with technology makes the magnificence of the gift of Shabbos that much more evident, and the Shabbos App is a threat to that gift. Shabbos is the last oasis of serenity and digital disconnection that allows us to truly connect to what is important: our families, our friends, and ourselves.
In his book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, former United States Senator Joseph Lieberman writes, “Six days a week, I’m never without this little piece of plastic, chips and wires that miraculously connect me to the rest of the world and that I hope makes me more efficient, but clearly consumes a lot of my time and attention. If there were no Sabbath law to keep me from sending and receiving e‑mail all day as I normally do, do you think I would be able to resist the temptation on the Sabbath? Not a chance. Laws have this way of setting us free.”
The designers of the Shabbos App claim that they are trying to prevent the desecration of Shabbos by addressing the prohibitions associated with cell-phone use. Would we not be better off understanding why a minority of individuals in the Orthodox community are using their cell phones on Shabbos, and addressing those issues?
Numerous studies find a relationship between “texting addiction” and social anxiety. These adolescents are so dependent on their cell phones to connect with others because it’s the only way they know how. Perhaps focusing on the social needs of our children and teaching them what it means to be a good “digital citizen” would go a lot further in reducing texting on Shabbos and the negative social and psychological outcomes that would occur if it were somehow made permissible. Let us all take a moment to evaluate our own digital habits and dependencies and say no to the Shabbos App.
Eli Shapiro is a licensed clinical social worker with a doctorate in education. He serves as an adjunct professor at Touro’s Graduate School of Psychology and is the founder of Tech Smart & TheDigitalCitizenship.com