Shabbat Unplugged

Devorah Heitner, PhD is an experienced speaker, workshop leader and as founder of Raising Digital Natives, is a consultant & expert on the research on kids media.

Families are struggling with how to manage their children's digital experiences, and how to develop a healthy media ecology that promotes digital literacy without letting media take over their lives. Parents have questions about Internet usage on playdates, gaming "addiction" and when to allow access to devices from the iPod touch, to cell phones and tablets. When I speak to parents, I share ideas about how to create a positive digital media environment in your home by carefully considering devices and apps before giving children access to them.

In addition to children's media usage, I encouraged them carefully review their own relationships to their devices and the constant connectivity that we've all come to rely on. Jewish families, like many parents everywhere are dealing with the information overload, employers that expect instant responses to  texts and emails sent during family time, etc. While technology can make us feel in-demand and super-productive,  unplugged time is more important than ever–and it doesn't happen on its own.

Kids want and need unplugged time with their friends and with their parents, even if they don't express this need directly.

Here's a list of "Phone/Screen Time rules for parents" from a group of 5th graders I worked with recently.

  • "Get Blue Tooth so you don't call or text while driving"
  • "No Phone at Dinner, Restaurant"
  • "Have someone else text for you when driving"
  • "Don't get calls and faxes all night long"
  • "When an adult is on the phone, kids should be able to play video games."

Hearing these sharp insights from the mouths of kids I work with is a good reminder of how closely kids are observing us!

In the Jewish community and beyond, parents are increasingly distracted by technology. We spend a significant amount of time with one foot in our immediate environment and other foot in "the cloud" or on social media. Our distractedness may even lead our toddlers to and young children more vulnerable to injuries. And our older children can be "injured" in subtler ways by our inattention.

Parents can help children embrace the positive potential of connectivity with weekly google hangouts or Skype time with distant grandparents, choosing tzedaka opportunities though online research and helping kids start creative digital projects such as  Bar or Bat Mitzvah Blog that can be shared with friends and family. Keeping track of your media ecology for a week, including noting every time you are multitasking will give you a good picture of where your devices are enhancing your family life, and where it might be undermining it.

For Jewish families, Shabbat offers a the perfect opportunity to create some unplugged time. Even if you still use electricity, or drive your car to shul, you can still choose to leave your devices at home, not check email, and skip that status update. Turning off the wifi at the router might help some families avoid temptation. If you let people know that you are offline at this time, and are consistent about it, you can carve this space out of your hectic life.

Bringing a little bit of Shabbat into the week could mean that you let you boss know that your are eating dinner with your kids and doing bedtime from 6:30-8:30pm and you can't answer texts or emails at that time. All of us need to push back against both workplace and social obligations that crowd out time for reflection and our closest relationships. After shabbat dinner with my husband and my son, I sleep more restfully than I do the rest of the week, when I am frequently answering email until 11pm.

On April 25th, I'll be presenting on a webinar through Darim Online about how Jewish educators can help children and parents draw on Jewish values and traditions to create a healthy and intentional family media ecology. (You can register here:

From unplugging on shabbat to finding ways to do tikkun olam in the digital sphere to resisting the temptation to gossip, there are many intersections between our Jewish values and traditions and nurturing digital citizenship in our children and a positive media ecology for our whole family. In the webinar, I'll draw on current research as well as my experiences at schools working with parents, faculty and students.

I look forward to answering your questions, and engaging in a dialogue about how Jewish Educators can support families at this time of great change in family life.

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