The Internet and the Orthodox Teen

Yesterday evening, Baltimore was host to a sober and honest analysis of the risks posed by new technology for teenagers, especially Orthodox ones. And to give away the plot, the conclusion was that the only solid protection is something far older than the Internet: parenting.

The speaker was Philip Rosenthal, an alumnus of Ner Israel and computer professional who “developed, created and implemented the Computer Crime Unit for the Rockland County Sheriff’s Department.” Today, his business card features his work in Technology Addictions, and he has spoken to audiences around the world, especially within the Orthodox community.

As someone very involved with technology, I experienced fewer surprises than most of the attendees. Perhaps the most unexpected part for me was when, with the full blessing of the rabbis, he said that the Internet is not going away, and is going to become more of a part of our lives. So much attention has been given to banning the Internet from homes, the kosher phones in Israel, etc., that we are not preparing ourselves for the next wave… and it’s already here.

Today, he said, the biggest problem probably isn’t the personal computer, but the cell phone. Android and iPhone units take care of calendaring, Internet access, GPS navigation, e-mail, reading (including books, with Amazon Kindle), and paging — oh, and telephone calls. As they become more and more relevant to our daily lives, it becomes less and less feasible to expect that children will not gain access to them. One notable horror story — the 13-year-old Chassidic girl from “the best of homes” who borrowed her father’s Blackberry each evening to “play breakout,” not 6 feet away from him.

Parents may not even realize that other WiFi devices, such as the Sony PSP and Apple iPod Touch, can easily hook up to an unsuspecting neighbor’s unsecured router. Police were called to a residence because of a possible prowler — who turned out to be a teenager with a PSP, from a home a few houses down which would never dream of permitting Internet access.

[A recent article in a publication that I respect, using information provided by an educator that I respect, refers to a young man who “took out an iPod, and accidentally chanced upon horrible websites from a neighbor’s unsecured wireless modem.” Accidentally chanced upon?! Did the parents believe that? Did the Rabbi/educator? Does dan l’kaf zechus (judge everyone favorably) towards an anonymous 19-year-old justify misleading the public with regards to how such things happen?]

Mr. Rosenthal also let us know that one of the early fears of CyberCops has not come to pass — despite children disclosing entirely too much personal information online, often including home addresses, the result has not been an increase in abductions. Nonetheless, children are becoming accustomed to discuss publicly what we would consider entirely private, which can do far greater harm than they may imagine. He gained access to one community after distributing copies of a profanity-laced tirade written by a teenage girl about her hatred of her own father, which he had downloaded from her public information on Facebook — and then letting them know that the author was the daughter of one of the rabbis present. Another girl foolishly posted something which resulted in a refusal from the seminary of her choice — and it is already well-known in the secular world that what you post on Facebook is quite likely to end up in an employer’s hands along with your next job application.

The bottom line, at the end of it all, came back to parenting, and open lines of communication. He recommended K9 Web Protection, Spector Pro and eBlaster, but cautioned that any software can only be installed along with open communication about its use as a deterrent — and that, in the words of an accompanying booklet from the Technology and Family Safety Alliance, “no technology-based solution is ever foolproof.” We are faced with a test unlike one ever seen before, he said, because no one knew it was coming, and because most parents are less familiar with the technologies than their children. Each family has to set appropriate policies for use and supervision, along with open communication — and, he said, a promise that a child will never be punished for being open and honest about anything that may have happened.

It is more than worthwhile to have Mr. Rosenthal speak in your community — the child you save may be your own.

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29 Responses

  1. mycroft says:

    “and, he said, a promise that a child will never be punished for being open and honest about anything that may have happened”

    A lesson not only for parents but for mechanchim-if one asks a child to trust a guidance counsellor, Rebbe etc and then they get in “trouble” for what they tell the Rebbe they will not only never tell that Rebbe anything again but there is a very good chance that they will never trust Yahadus-after all the Rebbe represents Yahadus. Solution have separate employees-call them deans of discipline etc whose jobs it is to find out things, monitor halls, attendance etc.

  2. David says:

    “with the full blessing of the rabbis, he said that the Internet is not going away, and is going to become more of a part of our lives. So much attention has been given to banning the Internet from homes, the kosher phones in Israel, etc., that we are not preparing ourselves for the next wave… and it’s already here.”

    Yasher koach for mentioning this. It is a waste of time and effort to try banning the internet, which is an exercise in futility. We need to focus our attention, as Rabbi Menken wisely does in this piece, figuring out how to overcome the challenges posed by the internet, rather than pretending we can just keep it away. That the rabbis gave this comment their blessing is a very encouraging sign.

  3. The Contarian says:

    Rabbi Menken Writes

    “chanced upon horrible websites from a neighbor’s unsecured wireless modem.” Accidentally chanced upon?! Did the parents believe that? ”

    I can believe that. Once, I chanced upon such a site by typing in
    when I was trying to get to the NYT home page.

    Typos in URLs are dangerous.

  4. ARW says:

    I am a parent who is deeply involved in the Technology industry and has actually managed the process of protecting a large corporations employees from inappropriate content on the Web. The main thing that scares me is ignorant parents. I can use all the technology wizardry available to protect children in my own home, but I can’t do much about other people’s homes except educate my children, try and verify the level of protection in other people’s homes and pray. This has to be a community effort. Just like every parent has to teach their children to swim they need to protect their own children and children who come into their home to the best of their ability from inappropriate Internet content.

  5. Neil Harris says:

    Great post R Menkin.

    Most parents have no clue what their kids are doing, unless a system of checks and balances for all web use is in place.

    Teaching responsibility about the web starts with adults.

  6. joel rich says:

    R’ Neil,
    I would amend your statement to -Teaching responsibility starts with adults. Sure you can play technology defence but I remember R’ Steisaltz speaking some 30 years ago that anyone who thinks they can keep the outside world outside is deluding themselves. No guarantees either way.

  7. Miriam says:

    You highlight what I think are 3 distinct roles us parents need to play:

    (1) shelter our children
    (2) educate our children regarding making choices
    (3) educate ourselves of the realities out there

    Those parents (and leaders) who only opt for (1) are ignoring the fact that one day all those children will be adults and will need to make their own filtering decisions. And that’s if they’re lucky because while it’s unpleasant all of us would be wise to know something about (3) so we can talk more intelligently to our kids about it, and recognize danger signs.

    But those who decide not to shelter their children at all and in the spirit of (2) give them free internet access aren’t really educating them either.

  8. rachel w says:

    Responsibility starts with the parents. If you allow the tools into your home (IPOD, Blackberry, et al) you must learn all about the technology that they provide. Go to some sort of course, so that you can be on par with your kids’ knowledge.

  9. another Nathan says:

    Join Facebook, and “friend” your child. If they refuse to accept you, refuse them use of your internet access. That will make them think, at least, before posting anything.
    Yes, you can inadvertently access obscene pages. My child had a school assignment about the Yiddish writer Bialik. However, one of the writer’s descendants is an actress, so most of the search engine results were to porn pages (not of the actress).

  10. David says:

    Schools also play a big part in this. I believe that every Orthodox school needs to have a series of special classes for the kids in 5th or 6th grade or so, explaining to them “adult” things including the dangers of the web.

  11. pk says:

    Assuming the possibility that your child has access to the internet via a cell phone, how would you explain the dangers of the internet to your child. How would you explain to him/her that he has to police himself? Can anyone give me a real example of what they would say to their child.

  12. Neil Harris says:


    True. Regarding the outside world, take to heart the words of R Moshe Weinberger (Cong. Aish Kodesh, Woodmere,NY) from his Shabbos Shuva drasha. What follows is my own transcription of two minutes of drasha, starting at the last 12 minutes. The two minutes that I’m typing up really show exactly what we need to do to keep Yiddishkeit alive. I take all responsibility for any mistakes in my transcription.

    “The only thing that will save this generation, the secret to saving our generation is not how we can pull out more plugs from more machines. They’re always ahead of us. They always have other machines. And just when you though you could control what the kid is sending with text messages, someone told me last year that the kid can go to the store and get a disposable cell phone, that nobody even knows about. There’s no bill that is ever is ever sent to the house. There’s always some other way. When a person is in this world, there’s always a way.

    So they can have a thousand conferences and meetings about “How can you take away the pleasures of the children of this generation?” And if we can take away all their pleasures and make new yeshivas where there’s no sports, no smiling, “Smiling is not allowed”. No laughing, no happiness, no recess. Anybody that is caught wearing or with a smile in the “Kingdom of Sadness” will be banished from the school forever. Which also means that all of the sisters and brothers will never get shiduchim. They think of new way of how to save this generation. There’s only on way. The only way to save this generation, and it’s our responsibility, is to show them that Yiddishkeit is so geschmack, to lift them up to a place that is called “Al Cheit”- higher than that stuff (ie- above or before the chait).

  13. joel rich says:

    Thanks – reminds me of a purim torah that I gave as a marketing pitch for Yeshiva of Wobegon and it’s sister school across town Bais Wobegon (al sheim Clint and Clarence Bunsen) all the mothers are strong akeret habayits, all the men are good at looking at shas , and all the children are above average

  14. Neil Harris says:

    I have found my 11 yr old son trying to get online with my phone. I’ve explained to him that just like fire can be used to cook food, it can also burn a house down. A gun can be used to help protect soldiers in E”Y and in the American army, but it can also be used to murder someone. The web is the same way. Email is great for sending a quick note to someone and websites can be used to help you do school projects, but there is plenty of websites that are as treif as McDonald’s and he has be supervised. My son know that we have software on our computers that track every site anyone goes to and that Abba and Mommy have access to see where each of us go and we also know what sites he goes

  15. Bob Miller says:

    The determined internet abuser will always find a way, away from home if not at home. Our minimum goal should be to make accidental surfing into bad websites (by computer, cell phone, or whatever) very difficult. Even this is a big challenge.

  16. Jameel says:

    Beis Yaakov in Jerusalem this week expelled 9 girls for having cellphones with SMS text capability (thereby rendering them “not kosher” according to Beis Yaakov).

    I translated the article about it, here:

  17. Miriam says:

    Jameel – an example of the sheltering-only approach.

    As a bais yaakov family (though our b’chora at age 11 is already talking sheirut leumi not sure where she heard about that….!) we teach our children to be highly respectful and carefully obedient of school rules. But sometimes we add a bit of critical thinking about those rules, like are they always necessary is that the best way to achieve the purpose etc. Because one day they’ll need to create their own personal set of rules.

    Hopefully the families can write remorseful letters co-signed by Rabbanim and the girls can sit in the school office for a week or two crying and reading Tehillim and they’ll be readmitted. I don’t mean that cynically – expulsion followed by cautious re-admittance can be a valid chinuch tool.

    Or they could do sheirut leumi….

  18. Dr. E says:


    Wouldn’t that be a great story? What if these girls could not get back into the school and ended up doing Sherut Leumi and became productive members of Klal Yisrael, contributing to Israeli society? Five years from now, the young women would look back, thank Hashem, and that would make one of the great Hashgacha Pratis stories.

  19. Yaakov Menken says:

    Some great comments here…

    There is no question that the Beis Yaakov made the right decision. If you don’t know why, see the comment of ARW above. This applies both to the technology and how it can be, and is being, (mis-)used.

    The average American teenager with a cell phone sends 80 text messages every day. “The phenomenon is beginning to worry physicians and psychologists, who say it is leading to anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation.”

    Of course, 80 is only the average — some send more, some less. Mr. Rosenthal described a bochur who was sending not 80, but 800, messages per day — using one phone in each hand, without even looking. He also described walking through a dining room with five teenage girls in it, and suddenly realizing there was no talking happening. Having raised teenage girls himself, this caused him to do a double take, and he saw that every one of the girls was sitting at the table sending and receiving text messages in lieu of having a live conversation. It could even have been true that they were sending text messages to the person across the table – every day, students get out of school and trade text messages with the person sitting on the bus next to them.

    This can easily be done during class, by installing a custom ring/alert tone which parents and teachers literally cannot hear. Don’t take my word for it — try this test with your kids. They will hear pitches that you cannot hear at all.

    With all of those issues, do we even need to go into the relationships that could be developed by text message without parents even knowing?

    Given that in Israel one can easily get a “kosher” phone which carries telephone calls without text or Internet, it makes perfect sense for the school to require that a student carry either a “kosher” phone, or none at all.

  20. Allan Katz says:


    I wonder why we never have similar articles on the use of our tongues and mouths, the most advanced and dangerous technology we have , far more dangerous than internet.

    But that’s the emphasis we have in chinuch – you control people by what they can read, listen to and hear. .

    Most articles on internet give the message that internet is a social tool and dangerous. This is a misreprentation of what internet can be.

    Most educators are cluless of the potential of internet for learning and just reinforce the idea that internet is just for social use.

    Nancy Willard ‘says that we have to be pro-active in changing the way kids think of the internet – as a learning or a social tool.’ ‘We will NOT be able to effectively prepare students for their education, career, and civic responsibilities in the 21st Century if the technical services directors in schools throughout this country continue their heavy handed filtering.

    It is essential to shift how the Internet is being managed from a primary reliance on filtering to more effective monitoring – in an environment where education – not social – use of the Internet is expected, and supported with effective professional and curriculum development.’


  21. Miriam says:

    Rabbi Menken thanks for summarizing some of the ill effects of SMS – it reminds me of what people were saying about TV a generation ago – it isn’t only content. But unfortunately the masses seem to respond best to content-related dangers (not only religious people either – a generation ago there was plenty of talk about violence on TV but no one discussed the medium itself despite lots of research indicating that it was the passive mode which was doing much more damage).

  22. Moe says:


    I think the benefits of the internet are obvious to most in 2010, which is why these gatherings need to highlight its dangers for fear that they may be naively overlooked.

  23. L. Oberstein says:

    I believe Mr. Rosenthal emphasized that we are not going to get rid of the internet and rather than ban it we need to understand what our children are challenged by. If you find out how to raise perfect children in an imperfect world, let us all know. It isn’t just the internet, the cell phone with internet, teh text messaging, the IPOD, the WI, and a dozen other things I don’t even know about. It is mainly that the outside world seems to offer so many of us, young and old, something that , on the surface at least, seems very inviting. We can either build ghettos or we can try to insulate our children and adults with a strong identity and religious beliefs that can withstand the outside world. I think we have been a little too triumphal in our community that we are suceeding when the rest of klal yisroel is going down the tubes. Maybe our system isn’t as fool proof as we like to think and maybe our methods just don’t work any more. As we become more threatened we become more defensive and I think it isn’t working.

  24. Simcha Younger says:

    Perhaps the moderators can remove the link to an inappropiate site in comment #3 (from the Contrarian)? (I did not check out the site, but the comment tells us it really is bad.)

    [At one time that may have been so. Today it is an innocuous placeholder site, which we verified before approving the comment. — Mods]

  25. Jameel says:

    Rabbi Menken: Do you believe the behaviour of the Beis Yaakov principal was appropriate towards the 8 girls who weren’t using a non-kosher phone?

    According to the article (I don’t know any of this first hand, I just translated the article), the principal went through the first girl’s phone’s phonebook in order to find if any of her friends were using non-kosher phones as well.

    I would think that such an invasion of privacy would fall under the Takanat Rabbeni Gershon’s issur of reading another person’s mail. While phone confiscation is understood in the context of this issue, does that give the halachik right to go through the confiscated phone?

  26. L. Oberstein says:

    My daughter in law is a graduate of BJJ and this is the response she sent me to the article.
    Hi Guys False Alarm,
    If you read closer it was a 12th grade girl which means the High school Bais Yaakov yerusalayim highschool (hayashan) not affiliated with BJJ where they are prob not allowed to have cell phones in school. BJJ does not have any cell phone rules (as a matter of fact almost no rules at all b.c they trust their students, they just have high standards).
    If you read the comments at the bottom everyone clarifies that this was a mistake on the reporters part and is not the American Seminary.
    I was just about to call Rebbetzin D. to tell her she made it to the news and then I checked into it.

  27. tzippi says:

    This is tangential, but I would love to see some serious, thoughtful writing on news that’s fit to print (subtitle: WWTCCD, TCC being the Chofetz Chaim). While there are many relavent issues surroundingthe story of the girls’ school in Jerusalem – what are appropriate and draconian rules, and consequences, basically – why should this particular story be debated by the greater community?

  28. Miriam says:

    Actually Tzippi I think the school itself would want the high publicity. The point of such an extreme punishment as expulsion is to convey that having a phone without the limitations required by the school is a severe violation, not something that gets a little slap on the wrist. It will make students in every institution with such rules far more careful in the future.

    Of course far more careful about what – not bringing the phones to school? not reading SMS’s in school? also carrying a decoy kosher phone?

    Also since the 12th graders are well into adulthood for matters of censorship, it highlights a shortcoming of the ban-it-all approach: the parents are ignorant, the kids are somewhat ignorant, there is no conversation about how to self-monitor going on. In 12th grade the ban-without-discussion sends a message that these things are too dangerous to handle.

    Unlike in the earlier years, where bans on devices can be more successful and can help raise kids like in the olden days – so they actually do know life without cell phones or computers or whatever, which reduces the formative effect of the devices.

  29. RD says:

    I heard Mr. Rosenthal speak.
    And as a student, I was unimpressed. He didn’t say anything. I had gotten rid of my FB before he spoke, for the things he was probably indicating that kids get involved in, but had I heard him while I still had my FB, I would not have gotten rid of it because of him.
    And now, the school’s attempts to rid our homes of Internet is simply overkill. Most mechanchim, don’t know what it is like to have internet and speak so esoterically, they haven’t a clue what they are saying.
    If it not for the way I would be looked by my peers and teachers, I would stand up to say why I closed my FB and why my peers should do the same. But in this world, students and children can’t come forward.Parents simply wouldn’t understand and teachers would look down on us.
    I was not impressed by the speech.

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