By Brent Davidoff
[This is part two in a four-part series written by graduates of M2: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education’s Senior Educators Cohort.]
“Teenagers and cell phones.” Do a Google search of these terms and skim through the results. Here are a few that came up for me: “The harmful effects of smart phones and social media,” “The rules every parent should establish for teen cell phone use,” “Cell phone addiction rife amongst teens.” Page after page are filled with articles that follow a similar line. If Google ranks its results by how relevant and useful they are, then the people clicking must be worried parents and not inquisitive teens.
The conversation around the relationship teens have with their digital devices, and the worlds that they access through them, is shaped by fear of the known and unknown effects that digital environments such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat can have on a child’s development. Schools have internalized the same feelings and structure lectures and lessons around online bullying and … more online bullying. No doubt this is important to do, but as educators, our best responses will come from listening to the people we care most about. What then is the full picture of teens’ online experience?
According to a recent Pew Research Center report entitled “Teens Social Media Habits and Experiences,” a majority of teens credit social media for helping them build stronger friendships and exposing them to a more diverse world. At the same time, the Pew report found that “teens express concern that these sites lead to drama and social pressure.” The last part tells us that kids are awake to the issues they face online. The real light that this study shines is on teens’ overall experience online, which is positive and seen as a constructive force in their lives. This is important news for all the Jewish organizations out there that work with teens — to engage your audience holistically, you must embrace the online world that they inhabit and then seek ways to elevate it.
At King David Schools in South Africa, we see the digital environment, and specifically social media, as an important space for enriching Jewish identity and sparking conversation. We seek to create content that gives rich expression to Jewish values in radically relevant ways.
Jewish festivals are viewed as a springboard for fresh explorations of ideas and values, especially as they are expressed in the ritual: #pesach #4sons #goodquestion #askyours. Yes, we take hashtags seriously; they have the power to move people to action and show what a value “looks like.” It’s essential that we get students to partner with us in generating content. In our #SoulFoodLive broadcasts on Facebook, the guest speaker explores a topic chosen by students and interacts with them live during the broadcast. Instagram Stories have opened up new avenues for sharing deep and brief messages on a regular basis.
Scrolling with the times is also an act of community building. There are real people behind those likes and follows, and every single one of them matters. Let them know that they matter by making them feel like they are part of a broader community of friends. Post content that is inclusive but that nudges your audience to see new perspectives and ideas. The teens themselves have told us that social media exposes them to a more diverse world, and your content should be a trusted partner in exploring that world.
With no exams or projects to complete within limited schedules, learners who engage with us online do so out of choice. Experiential education values choice-making because it exponentially heightens interest and curiosity. Getting them to choose us, though, requires our videos and posts to have entertainment value that competes with all the other media out there, and therefore, we place great emphasis on the quality and slickness of our content. However, this is not enough. If you dig deep to understand the questions that are on teens’ minds, as opposed to what is on the educator’s mind, you find Jewish living speaks a familiar language for them and becomes a valuable tool for self-exploration and identity formation. When we use digital environments to impart our messages, we can reach learners in more natural environments. We want to be the 30 seconds of inspiration and feel-good energy that learners encounter while endlessly scrolling through Instagram on their phones outside of school.
In research conducted by Common Sense media in partnership with a Harvard based education think-tank, it was found that the conversations parents have with children about technology, are most effective when rooted in family values. The same is true in the Jewish studies classroom. Having recently completed a course run by the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, I am inspired to begin a new conversation with my learners, one where their experience of the online-world can be improved by tapping into eternal Jewish values. This is why we are rolling out “The #DigitalCitizen Project,” it’s a series of classes that build skills that learners can use to not only survive, but to thrive online. One of the classes is based on the Mishna which opens “Make for yourself a teacher/mentor.” If you don’t actively seek out the influencers, channels and content that will have a positive influence on your life, then the Facebook algorithms, who’s only intention is to keep you glued to your feed, will choose for you.
The role of social media should be elevated to form part of the essential fabric of how we operate and educate and, given the correct intentionality, a powerful medium for holistic engagement. Let us see the very same screen, or “black mirror,” that they stare at endlessly as a portal into their imagination and high-quality dialogue – a space where immersive learning experiences can take place that are grounded by values and shaped by positivity, fun and hope.
Brent Davidoff is the Director of the Division of Informal Jewish Education in Johannesburg, South Africa and a graduate of Senior Educators Cohort 3 of M²: The Institute for Experiential Education. You can find Brent and King David schools on Instagram Dije_KD and Facebook Dije KD.
M² develops and provides training and research to advance the field of experiential Jewish education and invests in the growth of its educators. Learn more at www.ieje.org. Read the entire series at https://linktr.ee/m2ieje.