Thursday, July 9, 2009

Internet Filters - To Be or Not to Be?

Your child returns from school or yeshiva one night with a surprise: a new computer.

So that's what happened to me: my sixteen year old came back the other night with a new MSI netbook (had he consulted me he would have bought the Asus). Such computers are designed for internet access, but strangely this one didn't pick up the wireless connection from the several routers in my building. (If you think charedim don't use the internet, take a netbook in your car, and drive through a charedi neighborhood, and see how many signals you pick up!). Since sixteen year olds know everything, he didn't acknowledge that he didn't know how to fix it - so we speculated that it must broken. Since the settings were all in Hebrew, I didn't know either.

It suited my purposes - I bided my time. Planned, travelled to, and return from London - 'I'm busy; I'll get to it! I will!' To be sure, upon my return, he wanted it to work. So I finally did the legwork - went to my personal computer guru in the library who did the equivalent of flicking a switch - pressed the fn key together with f9 - and, what do you know?: it wasn't broken after all.

Now many of my charedi friends - I use the term even though I dislike the sociological designation - may be sitting with jaws dropped in disbelief: 'why did you fix it?', or perhaps even more incredulously: 'you didn't take it away from him?!' Other charedim - in different neighborhoods, and probably not my friends - might exclaim more forcefully, as once appeared on the billboards in Jerusalem and B'nei Brak: 'the internet is a cancer!; you let a cancer in the house?'

I didn't think in those terms - though it did pass through my mind that I had the equivalent of a loaded weapon in my hands, and there was my son calling, asking about his computer - 'I need it abba!' 'Now!' So what to do?

So I installed an internet flilter. In the process of doing so, in front of the Arnon Windows at the National library, some of my modern orthodox and secular friends - those horrible designations again - wondered: 'what are you doing?' The same incredulity, but from a different place: 'we live in the world, and your son has to learn how to make choices.' And: 'adulthood is about facing challenges, and yet restraining from those things we know to be wrong.' They might have easily as quoted Milton's Areopagitica:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
So if trial is by what is contrary - give him the computer and let him learn to choose: 'Reason,' as Milton says, 'is but choice.'

Part of me agreed. A therapist friend told me of a clinical situation where a client with an internet addiction advised - 'every time you have thoughts of the internet, have a container of hot sauce handy, and dip into it and stick some in your mouth.' Pavlov for humans!

In another case, the therapist advised the client to make out a check for one thousand shekels to a good, but not great cause - let's say 'save the whales' - and to leave it signed in the therapist's drawer. If the client were to go back to his addiction, the therapist explained, he would dutifully submit the check to the charity. But as it turned out, the client didn't play the game - he just didn't tell the truth: 'Ani lo freier, he is reported to have said; 'I'm not a sucker.' In the continuation of the story, the therapist now clearly playing the role as big brother - the authority figure - sent his expert to put the appropriate filters on the computer. But notwithstanding, the client's desire - on some level, after all he chose to see the therapist - to beat his addiction, he found an equally competent expert, on some other pretext or other, to have the filter removed.

This is certainly not a model of psychic wholeness - where an external authority is battled (and usually outsmarted) by the irrepressible and always resilient powers of desire. Reason is choice. Not the threat of external punishment, or the presence of external controls - which ultimately attest to a psyche at war. So back to Milton: we don't after all take filters into daily life - we have to rely upon our ability to choose.

So why did I go with the filter? Because, though I know my son wants to be on the internet for the right reasons (e-mailing his grandparents, googling the six day war and cars), he may - unwittingly - become immersed in the wrong things. Were that to happen then the ability to choose - something of underestimated difficulty - may never develop. As a fellow blogger put it: 'we are always trying to calibrate external restraints to our child's ability to choose.' So to be sure, the filter - the external restraint - can't be the endgame or goal. But it might create enough space - in the meantime - for a curious and developing young person to learn how to choose as he becomes an adult.

What would you do?


Author's Dilemma said...

This is a "hot" issue for me and one that I think will be the first I comment on in your blog.

I was one of those kids who grew up with the internet in a less-religious household. obviously, my dad didn't want me surfing to adult sites (I think more he had no idea they were even around back then) but he didn't talk to me about it, nor install a filter.

Interestingly, after unwittingly sampling from the seedier side of the net, those evil popup ads began to irk me to the point that i learned how to acquire and install a filter of my own to be free of them.

I'm a great believer in what Milton said - i feel that by forcibly denying something exists you are making it more alluring. think about it: why aren't a woman's elbows considered "sexy"? obviously, because its such a common occurrence to see them. there is no rush of forbidden pleasure to gaze upon them.

Once one has experienced what the internet has to offer without the magic of its being forbidden, its rather boring and annoying. the people who are "addicted" do it compulsively, like snacking when there are doritos in front of you. they don't derive any real pleasure from it the same way the 100th dorito doesn't taste so amazing.

I would install the filter and sit down to discuss it with your son. let him know whats out there, why it exists, and why you installed the filter - if you are frank about it, he'll realize there is nothing so amazingly special about the adult content out there the same way a spam filter doesn't make spam more alluring: it filters out the crap.

It's a fact of life that someone living today WILL stumble over adult content: if its a billboard, a person, or the internet. Education and communication make all the difference between getting sucked in and just walking away.

Tr8erGirl said...

Very nicely put, AD!

wdk said...

I have some questions about the psychology of the 'forbidden fruits' argument - which I think is ultimately a Christian one (that the law itself creates desire). I also think once one forms an addiction - repetition does not get tiresome... the pleasure may be in the repetition...

Having said that, I think your emphasis on tone is just right - and have adopted it in conversations with my son - so thank you!

Rafi said...

The choice is still there to circumvent the filter in the various ways possible or to access the Internet at friends' houses. Putting a filter on your Internet is just a responsible thing to do rather than leaving him in front of the beit zonot with a purse full of money as hazal would have put it. Your son knows what's out there probably better than you do. He will respect you for it and will learn respect for himself.

wdk said...

That makes sense to me as well Rafi - though I think the presumption of trust is also important as AD suggested. I set his firefox homepage to my website - with my picture on it. Was that too much?

Anonymous said...

I have a rather old-fashioned approach for kids who are under 18, put the computer in the lounge or any other public room so that you can discreetly monitor not only what they do but also how much sleep they get. Besides my students told me that most kids know how to get their way round a filter.

Author's Dilemma said...

Rafi -
That's exactly why I put my emphasis on conversation. internet or no, anyone today can just walk outside and be exposed to any form of sin. It is only the morals imparted by the parents and the child's inner sense of right and wrong that make all the difference.

my reasons for disagreeing with Ilana (unless the child proves he's untrustworthy) is that in many ways, I feel the filtered internet is a good thing. giving a child a sense that he's trusted, explaining things to him and letting him make his own choices are all things that build character and help a child face the true tests of his adult life - which to be honest, internet doesn't really rank among them.
additionally, I'm pretty sure he has a laptop, making it kind of difficult to chain him to one place.

About him bypassing: yeah, he could also just go to an unfiltered computer, or buy a disc off a friend. or just visit someone who got a video out of a DVDmat and watch it. that's why it's more important to talk about why the filter is there and make sure he appreciates and understands the reasoning behind it. I see the filtered internet as a battlefield, not the war, and i don't want a pyrrhic victory.

Further, if you have good communication out there now, he might approach you or just outright say no to those other dangerous offers.

Having said that, the filters aren't EASY to bypass. he would have to go seriously out of his way to find a way around them and possibly learn a lot about computers. i know many kids that wanted to, but never managed to bypass the filters (as a kid, i would be the one that kids begged to help them bypass filters and I would always turn them down). besides the intentional bypass, filters are good to avoid licentious pop ups that are EVERYWHERE which he would suffer from in your supervision or not. [did you notice that even Facebook has ads of scantily clad women? I only know that because i used it once away from home]

I'm glad I was helpful, WDK - I'm open for further conversation on this topic, time allowing.
Addressing your points:
I don't feel that there is much pleasure in repetition. can you think of one thing that if you did it repeatedly over a long term you wouldn't get sick of? I can't, but it might be the limits of my imagination. [I'm not talking about a general category (i.e. reading) but something specific (i.e. reading Harry Potter book 1). a specific sinful act would need to become more and more extreme to retain its enjoyment in the long term. (at least as far as my meager life experience has shown)

I agree with you on your second point and I'll refine my position: Its not just the the law itself creates desire. It's the mystique of the forbidden that does. if I made a law that you can't eat rotting meat i doubt anyone would feel the drive to. that same rule about a type of rancid meat that no one has ever encountered until now might have a different effect.

Compliment appreciated, Tr8er girl.

Author's Dilemma said...

I should add that Ilana's method does have many unaddressed advantages (seeing how much sleep they get, etc..)
I was addressing the point only as related to the topic (older child with his own laptop) and i just realized i might have been unintentionally dismissive.

wdk said...

Not sure if it's the mystique of the forbidden - that is, is there really a parallel between porn and rotten fruits (perhaps for some). I also think what comes out of this discussion is that every child is different, and every sensibility differently, and has to be addressed accordingly. I realized after reading AD's post that my son would very much benefit from - need - that expression of trust and confidence.

Re: the pleasures of repetition, I meant Freud's repetition compulsion - and what from the outside might look to be without pleasure (or even painful!) - may for a certain sensibility or personality be a form of pleasure. See Freud's Remembering and Repeating. To me, his most important essay (not that I'm an expert).

To make sociological generalizations again - which I warn against, but also enjoy - I think the MO generalize from a healthy sensibility of presumed rationality (which may not, in the end be as rational in every case as presumed). While Charedim, swinging in the other direction, generalize from a perspective of presumed desire (sometimes not as perverse as presumed), and thus skepticism about claims for intrinsic rationality.

It's worth noting that Milton who I brought as a kind of proof text for the modern orthodox perspective (students of Rav Aharon Licthenstein will be happy) seems to very strongly qualify that perspective in Paradise Lost. Eve articulates the perspective of Areopagitica - 'reason is but choosing' - while Adam says, 'great that you have independence, but if you're going to hang out in the garden, you may need a filter.'

She rebuffs his advice - and look what happened!

Michael Sedley said...

I agree that giving filtered access to the Internet is the right approach.

As everyone has pointed out, there are almost always ways to bypass the filters, or for that matter if you banned the Internet altogether there are plenty of other ways to access it, however granting access with an (even imperfect) filter sends a message that there is plenty of useful information out there, but be aware that there is stuff out there which should not be accessed.

My kids are still younger (oldest is approaching Bar Mitzva), but we give him access to the Internet - in the family room (not his own bedroom), and we use Internet Rimon which has one of the best filters available (although I'm sure that someone has found a way to bypass it, I don't believe there is such a thing as a fool-proof filter)