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Guarding Souls: Saving Life in the Age of Science and Technology

| 12/08/2017

When God instructs Adam in Eden from which tree he is forbidden to eat, the instruction is fairly clear. Genesis states, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:15-17). Implied is that Adam would know which was the tree of knowledge. Later, when the snake tempted Eve, she relates that she was told that it is even forbidden to touch the tree and she was told about the wrong tree. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” God said, but: “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Gen. 3: 2-3). Genesis 2 differentiated between the tree of knowledge and the tree that was in the midst of Eden. Knowledge, and how it is communicated, can cause all sorts of problems.

SMARTPHONES CAUSE DEPRESSION – You have probably seen the headline in capital letters more than once. Sometimes they add ANXIETY too. The more sincere authors add a question mark after the claim because they are well aware that the studies that link excessive cell-phone use with psychological disorders are correlational studies rather than cause and effect studies. When things are correlated you cannot know which variable is the cause and which is the effect.

In order to prove that it is cell phone use that causes mental illness we would have to, for example, take first graders across socio-economic classes and regions give some of them cell phones, prevent others from using them and even create another group that was instructed to read a book for the same amount of time as we told the group given smartphones to play on their phones. With certain experimental caveats, we would be able to measure levels of mental illness after, say, six months, one year, five and ten years. If the groups differed in mental illness, and we controlled for other confounds, we may be able to conclude that it was due to cell phone usage.

I believe the correlation or association to be true. My personal and professional experiences as a practicing psychologist bear the correlation out almost fully. However, professionals, teachers and parents, must consider that the causal relationship may actually be in the opposite direction. Depressed or anxious kids may actually have a greater tendency to retreat to their rooms and find comfort or get a boost from screen usage.

In the past, when children retreated to their rooms, or avoided playing during recess at school, parents would ask their kids what was wrong, and not easily accept “nothing” as the answer. Today, the early signs of depression and anxiety are often missed because of the partial curative effect of the screen. Depression and anxiety symptoms grow slowly and insidiously until the disorder becomes more entrenched and the treatment becomes more complex and difficult.

What should we do? First, we should set guidelines of appropriate usage and stand by them as parents. A simple suggestion is to institute a family “dinner time.” It does not matter at what time. But set the time and set the phone aside. It is never too late to start.

During dinner time ask about those topics that make kids uncomfortable. Bullying, gender relations, gender orientation and also what happened today. Regular contact with a person, particularly a parent, is the best remedy for derailing an oncoming depression. Once the disorder sets in, more may be needed. But if we look up from our own screens enough for enough time and attend to the initial signs then the next headline will be, “Parents got off phone, kids did too and there was less depression.” It will still be a correlational study, but at least we’ll be debating the positive causes of good moods rather than the opposite.

When we see headlines like… SMARTPHONES CAUSE DEPRESSION we assume that it is the lack of direct communication that causes the depressive or anxious response. However, in Exodus, the Children of Israel were made anxious by the unimpeded communication directly from God and demanded that Moshe be the interlocutor. To be sure, Bnei Yisrael didn’t always follow God’s instruction, but we cannot blame either error – Eve’s or those of Bnei Yisrael on the nature of the communication with or without an intermediary. We need to look at the whole picture in order to assess what went wrong. It is easy to blame the phone, but we may be missing the reality when we do.


Good ideas

Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is a Lecturer in Family and Community Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. He received his PhD in psychology from The New School University and rabbinic ordination from Schechter.

Image: Pixababy, Licensed through Creative Commons

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