Why I blog on Motzi Shabbat: The Problem of Distraction in a Digital Age

I often get my best blogging done on Motzi Shabbat. 25 hours in the "Palace in Time" of the Sabbath gives me time to refresh and reflect on the past and future weeks. Time spent with family and friends away from all electronic devices frees my mind and leaves me invigorated for the start of the new week. I know many people who go out on Saturday night to a restaurant or the movies but I would much rather spend this time when my brain is clear thinking, writing, and planning. I guess I am just a homebody.

I write this not just because I am blogging on another Saturday night but because of an important article that I read this past week about Professor David Levy whose primary teaching and research focus is the issue of distractions in our modern digital world. Many of us, myself included, are so hooked to our electronic devices that we rarely have time to think or reflect. When I tweeted out this article this past week, I joked that it took me three days to read it because I kept getting distracted. I was only half joking. Due to the constant stimulation when online, with my many tabs open simultaneously to various resources and constant interruptions from social media, it is VERY hard for me to focus my attention for a few minutes to carefully read a relatively longer piece.

Thank G-d, as an observant Jew, I have the Shabbat as my palace in time to do just that. I also have three opportunities a day during prayer for shorter meditation. In addition to these religiously mandated times, I like to think of this blog as my "palace in cyberspace" for online contemplation.

My worry is what this constant stream of electronic stimulation is doing to us. Some claim that it is rewiring our brains. Even our palaces in time are being challenged as I have blogged about in the past in a discussion of Half Shabbos.

I notice during prayers a similar phenomenon. On most any weekday in any minyan in America, you will see that during the "down time" of prayer, when the chazzan is repeating the amida or during Torah reading, many are fiddling on their smartphones. Even on Shabbat, I have noticed a different manifestation of this. Many people are spending much of davening engrossed in seforim of various types. There is a time to learn Torah certainly, but there is also a time to pray and these are not people who are so involved in learning 24/7 that they cannot put down a sefer for the duration of prayer. Rather, I believe that it is just a low-tech version of the same problem. Our brains are so used to constant stimulation that something as simple as just listening and responding amen, maybe while looking in a siddur, is very hard for us. No wonder prayer is so difficult in Jewish day schools. Just look at the examples they get from their synagogues at home.

This is an important issue in the classroom as well. Teachers sometimes complain about the distraction that students having a computer in class can cause. I often fault the teacher. If they made their lessons more engaging or taught more project based lessons where the technology could be a friend rather than a foe they would not have this problem. But what about other times when the teacher just needs to explain? Should they always have to compete with this electronic stimulation?

In this respect, I think an iPad is much better than a laptop computer. Kids can't hide behind the iPad the way they hide behind their laptop screens. It is also much harder to multi-task on an iPad than on a laptop so most students cannot easily jump screens when the teacher walks by. Finally, on an iPad you can lock down apps like games and since most online games don't work on an iPad, you can effectively mitigate many distractions.

However, I do see how, as one of my administrators puts it, the iPad or any classroom computer can compete with the teacher's attention. I don't have an easy answer for this, and for many, many reasons which I have mentioned numerous times, I think that the power of these devices to facilitate learning outweighs these distractions. But at the same time, I advise all schools getting iPads for their students to invest in a case with a smart cover. Sometimes the most important sound in a classroom is the sound of all of the smart covers snapping shut as the teacher says, "Now close your iPads and focus your attention on me."