As rabbis in the modern era, it is our responsibility to accurately and carefully assess both the challenges and the benefits of the modern world, in all of their complexity. In the span of a few decades, the Internet has established itself as an outstanding and undeniable example of both benefit and challenge, and has brought with it a drastically redrawn landscape of human interaction. The Rabbinical Council of America encourages its members to take careful notice of the effect of the Internet on our society, so that the unprecedented opportunities are utilized while the unique risks are addressed and acknowledged.
The Internet has made possible harbatzat haTorah in ways never before possible, including the widespread dissemination and availability of shiurim, articles, entire Torah texts, and online discussion groups and similar endeavors. The Internet has enabled and magnified chesed by the bringing together of people from anywhere in the world and joining them in awareness of the needs of others, in the formation of joint initiatives on behalf of the improvement of society, and in simple fraternity, itself a recognized value. The Internet has provided the broader community with the information and perspective necessary to make informed and educated decisions and to participate appropriately as committed Jews and as citizens both of the world and of their communities at the most local levels.
While we embrace these wonderful gifts, we do so while acknowledging the many challenges presented by the Internet culture, some of which are manifested through possibilities newly created by the Internet, and some of which are manifested through existing realities newly concealed or obscured by the Internet.
The Internet, also known as the World Wide Web, has expanded the reach of our words and actions to, literally, the entire globe, creating unprecedented geographical and demographic impact, while also (generally speaking) placing these words and actions in a setting of permanent availability, creating extraordinary duration to this impact. Whatever is expressed on the Internet, regardless of quality, propriety, wisdom, or lack of all of the above, is usually preserved for posterity and is not subject to editing or retraction. In this light, the existing admonitions to take great heed with our words, our statements, and our behaviors, must be proportionately amplified.
The openness and breadth of the Internet poses exceptional challenges to our sense of tzniut. It encourages the sharing, in an unrestrained and often permanent sense, of that which is more appropriately kept private, a value conceded even by the evil prophet Bilaam when he praised the Jewish people for dwelling in homes that were not exposed to public viewing. It also makes instantly available images of all types, bringing objectionable material of the most egregious nature into one’s view and into one’s home with the click of a mouse. These considerations impose new levels of vigilance far beyond that which was necessary in the past to create a household of kedushah and of spiritual, emotional, and physical safety.
Of particular relevance to pulpit rabbis, educators, and parents is the need to avoid an inappropriate degree of familiarity which may affect their authoritative stature. Care must be taken by such individuals when utilizing social networks and similar venues to maintain efficacy in these roles.
The severe prohibition of lashon hara is not mitigated through transmission via the Internet, while its effect is exacerbated by it. In addition to the expanded scope and permanence mentioned above, several other factors are relevant, including what contemporary psychologists have labeled the “Online Disinhibition Effect”, or the lack of empathy that is often present when one speaks through a computer screen rather than face to face. When anonymity, or even pseudonymity, is added to the mix, further distance is created between action and consequence.
Jews are also prohibited to engage in “Avak Lashon Hara”, which, according to some views, means not only that which the speaker expresses but also what is provoked in another’s speech (see Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:214). Accordingly, there is a need for responsibility not only in what one writes on the Internet, but in the recognition that the hosting of responses to one’s writings also carries with it great need for vigilance.
The Chafetz Chaim also stressed that great care must be taken in general with the assumption that any specific item of lashon hara is public knowledge and may then be freely discussed. This remains true even when an item is available on the Internet: due to the vast expanse of data present on the Web, linking or sharing items is still needed for attention to be paid, and accordingly doing so will often constitute forbidden sharing of lashon hara. The malicious gathering together of publicly available information on the Internet for the purposes of tarnishing the reputation of others is no less an act of forbidden disparagement than authoring such material would be.
The prohibition of Kabalat Lashon Hara places an onus of responsibility not only on the disseminators of information but also on the consumers to ensure that the content is true, contextual, and necessary. The open and unrestrained, as well as uneven, nature of the Internet puts an even greater burden on the consumer, and especially one who would afterwards share the information in the manner mentioned above, to bring an intelligent and informed skepticism to the experience.
At the same time, the above statements regarding lashon hara must not obscure the fact that some negative speech is vitally necessary for the protection of individuals and society, or for the general enhancement of society. Consequently, even greater care must be taken to ensure that that which must be communicated is indeed communicated in an effective and appropriate manner while avoiding that which is unjustified and untrue.
Other prohibitions of speech are also intensified by the culture of Internet usage, among them ona’at devarim (the needless infliction of emotional pain), which also becomes more frequent and damaging in an atmosphere of disinhibition and in the absence of face-to-face contact. In this setting, even innocent comments that are posted, often in the aftermath of a tragedy, for example, can add significantly to the pain of those already suffering.
Beyond the inadvertent infliction of ona’at devarim is the often intentional harassment and denigration of others that has become known as cyberbullying. While this activity is damaging at all ages, our youth, already severely vulnerable to the emotional and physical harm caused by traditional bullying, are now additionally vulnerable to suffering that can be imposed anonymously, permanently, and with unlimited reach, due to the abilities of modern technology.
As rabbis, parents, and educators, we must be acutely and actively aware of the risks posed to our children, whether as victims of bullies or of predators, or as consumers of materials that threaten their innocence and their emotional and spiritual health in ways that may prove irreparable. In the words of one recent study: “While the current generation of parents has been termed ‘helicopter parents’ or ‘Velcro parents’ for their tendency to ‘hover’ unnecessarily over their children’s school and extracurricular activities, or to ‘stick’ too close to their children, this rarely applies to parents’ supervision of children’s use of technology. Many families would benefit from parents spending more time discussing online behavior and monitoring their children’s online activities“. (R. Kowalski, S. Limber, and P. Agatson, “Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age”, Wiley Blackwell, 2012, p. 120).
Of course, focus on the vulnerability of children does not mean that adults are impervious to these risks. Abuse of the Internet has had a deleterious effect on marriages and other elements of adult life and responsibility.
Therefore, in light of all the above, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a continuing vigilance and process of education regarding the Internet itself as well as its usage by ourselves, our children, our students, and our communities. We encourage the utilization of the magnificent potential for good, and in doing so strongly urge that all steps be taken to protect against that which is harmful, including but not limited to:
The usage of filters and other technological tools when possible and appropriate.
The sponsoring by our institutions of sessions and seminars to provide the necessary awareness of the tools available, as well as the psychological, sociological, and halakhic realities pertinent to understanding the challenges.
Strenuous efforts to heighten the sensitivity to others that is obscured by online disinhibition.
Awareness and active involvement by parents, teachers, and rabbis in the activities of students and children on the web, together with the reinforcement of the necessary values and concerns in the educational context.
An enhanced awareness of the overall manner in which one’s time is spent and the effects thereof.
A recommitment, together with the necessary educational support, to the underlying themes and principles of shmirat halashon (as transmitter and consumer) and ona’at devarim in all forms of interaction.