While I don’t have or use TikTok, living with two teenage daughters, I am very familiar with what it is and how it works. There is a not a day that goes by when TikTok is not mentioned or referred to, and I have no doubt that this is not a phenomenon unique to my household. My daughters are forever moving their hands, legs and torsos about, as if they have been exposed to some sort of electric shock. Of course, as they always remind me, they are simply trying to learn a new dance which is now viral. I know this is popular because even when they get together with relatives and friends from the North Shore, they all very quickly get into formation, and once the music starts, they are able to shake their arms and legs in the same way at the same time. Now, I shouldn’t really complain because this dancing (as they refer to it) is definitely a form of exercise and that is important. However, the amount of time they spend ‘learning’ these moves by watching others is of serious concern.
One of my favourite pre-Shabbat preparations is plugging in my phone to the charger in the minutes prior to the onset of Shabbat. I know when Shabbat comes in not by looking at the time or by the fact that the candles have been lit, but by observing all the phones on their respective charging stations. Knowing that we are all going to detox from our mobile devices for approximately 24 hours is definitely one of the most significant benefits of Shabbat observance. We are told both in Genesis (2:2) and in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:14) that Shabbat is a day to Hashem, a day on which we cease from working. Just as G-d so called ‘rested’ on the seventh day (of creation), we too, like G-d, are commanded to cease from our regular work. Of interest, is that in Moses’ repetition of the 10 Commandments, there is another reason for Shabbat. The Torah tells us “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt… and G-d has taken you out from there and commanded you to keep Shabbat”.
Shabbat is a day on which we pause, think, and adopt a different routine which gives us time to appreciate and acknowledge those things that are important to us. These include our families, our friends, and the relationships we hold precious, including our relationship with ourselves, which we tend to ignore during what is often an intense and frenetic week. I often think that G-d knew what He was doing when He created Shabbat. We do need time, at the end of the week to just stop and rest. How appropriate is the reference to slavery? I have heard many experts compare our addiction with technology, including our mobile phones, to a slave-master relationship. One in which our mobiles are the master and we are the slaves. Our mobiles have become an extension of our hands. If you don’t believe me, just hop on a train during peak hour (once Covid restrictions permit this) and observe the passengers all interacting with their hand-held devices.
Many years ago, I recall having to explain to our non-Jewish neighbours that we can’t use electrical devices on Shabbat. They don’t have to say anything, but I could clearly tell what they were thinking by observing their facial expressions. Either, “you are crazy” or “you poor primitive family” are probably what they would have said. Now, I know they would say, “How lucky you are to be able to enjoy a meal or two with family and friends with no distractions. Time when you can actually talk to each other face-to-face without looking into a screen.” Today, it’s not only observant Jews who are conscious of the negative impact of smartphones and digital devices. Countless articles and research papers have been written which document the rise in loneliness, the loss of attention span and the general waste of time spent on such devices.
Israeli-born American author, lecturer and investor Nir Eyal authored a book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products in 2014. This quickly became a bestseller among tech-savvy companies. In 2019, Nir authored a second book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. This book is fast becoming a bestseller with representatives from companies like Google and Facebook agreeing that mobile devices are unhealthy and addictive. Stanford University recently changed the name of their research centre from the Persuasive Tech Lab to the Behaviour Design Lab and they are focusing on developing tools to reduce screen time. Nir writes, “The issue is not screens but people’s own minds, and to solve the problem they have to look within.”
Catherine Price, an award-winning science journalist, teacher and speaker, compares the relationship we have with our phones to the relationship we have with our partners. In 2018, she published her book appropriately titled, How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-day Plan to Take Back Your Life. In it, she provides some valuable suggestions in order to try and reduce the amount of time we spend on our devices, such as:
Reframe the way we think
We often think that by not spending time on our phones, we are denying ourselves the pleasure of watching others on TikTok, Facebook or Instagram. Instead, she suggests we change the way we think about this. The time we spend on our phones is time we’re not spending living life, doing things like ‘chilling’ with friends or walking your dog. Don’t think of it as spending less time on your phone, but rather more time living your life.
Set yourself up for success
We need to create triggers that will remind us of our goals and make it easier to achieve them. If we want to read a book, we need to leave it on our bedside table. If we want to cook, we need to prepare a shopping list and have the cookbook open to the right page. We should also make sure that our phones are placed in another room while we go about these activities. Most important, do not allow phones at the dinner table. Keep them far away.
Create speed bumps
How often do we pick up our phones while working, cooking, even sleeping just to check something which should take a few seconds, and 20 minutes later, we are still ‘checking’? Price suggests we create speed bumps that force us to slow down and make sure that when we do check our phones, it really is for a few seconds. Place an elastic band around your phone as a physical reminder, set a lock screen image which reminds you to put it down or just be strong, and after a few seconds, press the on/off button.
Pay attention to your body
When we are on the phone, do we notice how we are sitting or standing? Are we conscious of the way we are breathing? Is being on the phone something we want to be doing? The more tuned in we are to our own experiences, the easier it will be to change our own behaviour.
Practice is the key
Probably the most challenging to adopt but the most important. When you go for a walk (even on your own), or when you go out for coffee, leave your phone at home. Look at what’s happening around you. Notice the sights and sounds that surround you. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. While difficult at first, it will become easier for us to master.
Judaism does not promote a total detachment from technology, but we have to approach it with great caution. We have to measure its benefits carefully while at the same time assess its impact on our greatest treasures, our own families. Every seven days, I along with my family, have the opportunity to do a reset and disconnect for one full day. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this happens to be my favourite day. Observant or not, if you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it. And if you’re looking for a specific Shabbat to trial this, there is no better time than 6-7 November, the week of the Shabbat Project, 2020. This year, the theme is ‘Shabbat – Bring it home’. Perhaps it should be, ‘Shabbat – Keep it (your mobile) at home’.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.