Cultivating a Shmita Mindset with our Screens

November 1, 2021Dasee Berkowitz

"Imma, you are always on that thing," my 8-year-old informed me recently, pointing to my mobile device. "Yes, I am," I thought to myself with a bit of self-righteousness, I am busy arranging your gymnastics class and the carpool.

While I consider what I'm doing on my device very important, my daughter's comment reflects how my kids see me - hand outstretched, head bent, reflective blue glow on my face.

Her reaction mimics my own judgmental attitude whenever I see my kids "relaxing" on their phones, scrolling cute animal videos on YouTube, or fixated on Minecraft. I want to say to them, your brain cells are dying one by one, your eyesight is deteriorating, your minds are being controlled by the ever-encroaching of powers of Big Tech logarithms and artificial intelligence that are outsmarting us all.

I try to disguise my concerns by occasionally sidling up to them and asking, "Whatcha watching?" I always find it surprising when they share some scientific insight they learned on YouTube or share a tip on the best way to peel an avocado.

Our children's use of digital media will only grow more robust over the years, so what are parents to do? Like guiding the kinds of food they eat, we need to cultivate a healthy digital diet, not one that consists solely of the equivalent of Doritos.

I am grateful each week when Shabbat rolls around and our family unplugs. Sure, the kids fight a bit more, not lulled into the narcotic calm brought about by watching something. But they also play harder and use their imaginations a lot more. It's a weekly corrective when screen viewing is getting out of hand.

Now that Shmita (the Sabbatical year) is here, my thoughts turn to how we can develop a more systematic approach to limiting the time we and our kids sit in front of our digital devices. Shmita literally means release. Adopting a shmita mindset holds the promise of releasing us from the grip of patterns of habitual behavior with both time and economic implications. Let's find inspiration and insight from the biblical command that released farmers from working the land and leaving it fallow (Exodus 23:10-12) and released borrowers from repaying their debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 7-10). How can we apply this concept of release in our own day?

It is no coincidence that Shmita comes around only once every seven years as a means to cultivate respect for the land and for those who labor upon it. A more frequent sabbatical would cause a significant disruption in food and economic sustainability. A total withdrawal from the digital world would be similarly disruptive and unsustainable. But limiting dependence on our devices can yield surprising results if we focus on two critical factors: time and intention.

Regarding time, imagine putting our phones away at 9:00 pm and not looking at them again until 7:00 am the next morning. Consider how much more open you might be for undistracted conversation, reading a book, or catching up on sleep.

As for intention, we learned from documentaries like The Social Dilemma, that the product most closely tracked and valued by big tech companies is our attention. Cultivating a shmita mindset means blotting out the constant temptations of consumerism that inundate our screens instead of being guided by our own interests.

Consider setting an intention for yourself before you log on about what you are going to do online and how much time you intend to spend there. Being proactive about our online use this shmita year, will put us into a relationship with the digital world that serves us, rather than the algorithm masters. Maybe then we will spend less time on our devices and more time doing the things that nourish our bodies and our souls.

Limiting the time we are on our devices and setting an intention about what we do there are small steps that can alter our relationship to the digital world. By committing to these changes in our day-to-day lives, we can more readily guide our kids to do the same.

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