Youth at risk is a big topic in our communities. Barely a day goes by without a column or article being published on the subject. But we hardly ever speak of the other youth, the youth not at risk. Our at-risk youth will never lack resources and programs. But not-at-risk youth? Nobody can be expected to care about them.
I am obviously writing with a measure of sarcasm, but it is not without a grain of truth: Today, there are innumerable groups, associations, and just good people looking after dropout youth. Every girl who enters the category of “youth at risk” will find that many are willing to lend her a helping hand. But there is a growing phenomenon, which has expanded dramatically during the current pandemic, of apparently healthy and well-adjusted girls who end up in danger despite their failure to meet any criterion of “youth at risk.” These are good girls whose parents do not lose sleep over them and who are not under the spotlight of the staff of their excellent seminary. Emotionally, however, they are becoming ever more distant and are on the path to crashing.
Today, there are innumerable groups, associations, and just good people looking after dropout youth. Every girl who enters the category of “youth at risk” will find that many are willing to lend her a helping hand. But there is a growing phenomenon, which has expanded dramatically during the current pandemic, of apparently healthy and well-adjusted girls who end up in danger despite their failure to meet any criterion of “youth at risk.”
A young girl can spend half a day at her seminary (Charedi high school) and “play the game,” while living an entirely different life in the afternoon. The fact is that many Charedi girls are exposed to the Internet, often without the knowledge of their parents. As every educator in the world knows, the Internet is a dangerous arena, especially for young girls. They are exposed to all sorts of harm, emotional exploitation, and various forms of addiction. But our education system prefers to turn a blind eye and believe that we can suffice with a sweeping rejection of the Internet and movies. Ignoring the problem, unfortunately, does not actually make it disappear – it only prevents girls who have fallen prey to the dangers of the Internet from getting the help they need. They carry their traumatic experiences without dropping out or exposing their distress; slowly, and without anybody noticing, they start to detach – spiritually and socially.
Among Charedi youth, a young man who is sick of his yeshiva framework and has no spiritual connection to Torah study will usually drop out. Girls, by contrast, manage to survive and walk a fine line even when they have lost all interest in religious matters and feel no emotional connection to their school and its educational themes. The graduation diploma is reason enough for them to stick it out, even if they are spiritually elsewhere. Thus, they look like good seminary girls on the outside, while no-one but a close circle of kindred spirits knows their true struggles. At best, they overcome these harsh experiences over the years. In other cases, though, the wounds remain with them and fester.
It is high time we started raising awareness of the travails of those girls – youth who are not officially at risk – and recognizing the dangers they face online. We, as parents and educators alike, need to be aware of the various risks, identify girls in distress, and most importantly learn how to help them. Our duty is twofold: From the very outset, we must do everything to prevent young girls from falling prey to online dangers. And if they do fall – as they do – it is up to us to lend them an attentive ear and a supportive shoulder.
To demonstrate this need, allow me to recount the story of Miri – an all-too-common story – before moving on to the tragic story of Chani.
Miri and the Tablet
Miri is the third daughter of a good Jerusalemite family. She is gentle and joyful by nature, dressed per the accepted code, and enjoys helping out at home, volunteering at a neighborhood organization twice a week, and meeting with friends on Shabbat eve. Like many of her friends, she also has a Tablet. This is an entirely kosher Tablet – filtered and without a browser. What Miri’s parents do not know is that the Tablet has a drive that enables Miri and her friends to pass movies and TV shows between them. These are relatively “clean,” as movies go, but they are a long shot from the “presentations” shown at the seminary. They are the sort of movies that make Bais Yaakov educators very uncomfortable.
Standard teenage bickering among Miri’s classmates has recently turned bitter, making Miri feel alone and anxious. The Tablet became her secret friend, and she started to watch more and more TV on it. She would arrive at school exhausted and slowly started to drift away. When the teacher spoke of a “life of Torah” and of building her “Torah home,” she dreamt of the series she watched yesterday, not listening to one word said by her pious teacher who knew nothing about her. The Tablet became her refuge, a calming and soothing virtual reality.
Miri does not understand what is happening to her. She is unaware of her emotions or her need to escape. She is not conscious of the brief excitement she gets from binging TV and the emptiness that follows, and she does not know that she is developing an addiction. She gets a thrill from her ability to hide from her parents and “do what she wants” without permission from anyone, not realizing she is ultimately hurting herself. She lives a fantasy life, which she cannot discuss with the adults around her.
Miri does not understand what is happening to her. She is unaware of her emotions or her need to escape. She is not conscious of the brief excitement she gets from binging TV and the emptiness that follows, and she does not know that she is developing an addiction
A Charedi girl, inexperienced in romantic relationships, sees the depiction of relationships in the virtual world and has no idea that this is but a fantasy. The relationships she will experience, with God’s help, will be based on joy and pain, ups and downs, trials and challenges, and delight. But the more she sinks into the world of fantasy, the harder it will be for her to accept the complications and nuances of reality. This is a serious matter, further exacerbated by the emotional detachment and signs of addiction that many girls go on to develop.
True, we should not be naïve – a greater awareness of the possible hazards will not prevent the use of technology. What it can do, though, is breed understanding and allow a real-time assessment of what is happening to one’s soul. This, in turn, will encourage cautious use and prevent the worst excesses.
Chani Becomes Enmeshed in the Net
Miri is the classic case. She is drifting, she is detached, but she will probably make it back. We hear many stories such as Miri’s; they are worrying but not tragic. But then there are cases of true disaster. And given the wrong combination of circumstances, certain areas of cyberspace can turn a regular, every girl into youth at risk.
Some youth are especially vulnerable. The trigger can be particularly stormy feelings during adolescence, or external circumstances that lead the young girl into danger. Either way, beyond the relatively innocent watching of Hollywood movies and TV series, there are more serious threats to the psychological wellbeing of our daughters.
One of the most common dangers facing teenage girls is entering online relationships. The virtual world offers a wide range of means of communication. Well-known social networks are one such channel, but one can also develop a virtual relationship with strangers while playing video games. Thus, via an ostensibly innocent game, while represented by some virtual avatar, a girl can communicate with strangers from all over the world and develop ties that seem harmless at first, but which can quickly become addictions – addictions to the fictional persona she has built for herself. A teenage girl can also develop relationships on various forums, mostly via an assumed identity. These relationships can turn into emotional exploitation that will harm her trust in people, cause detachment, and a tendency to become mired in an imaginary world, and lead to exposure to harmful and corrupting contents. Thus, even if the online relationship never goes beyond the virtual realm, she could still be seriously harmed.
There are parents who are convinced beyond any doubt that “it won’t happen to us.” They do not even have Internet access at home, or if they do then it is highly-filtered – so what can happen. To such claims, we must respond that in our day, barring 24/7 surveillance on their daughter, they cannot truly know what she is exposed to
There are parents who are convinced beyond any doubt that “it won’t happen to us.” They do not even have Internet access at home, or if they do then it is highly-filtered – so what can happen. To such claims, we must respond that in our day, barring 24/7 surveillance on their daughter, they cannot truly know what she is exposed to. A seminary student can gain access to all types of content via friends or even via a smartphone she secretly bought. Moreover, even young girls who do maintain proper boundaries outwardly and restrict themselves to an email-only net can be exposed to harmful and unsettling content sent to them by strangers, and even engage in improper virtual relationships in this way.
A young girl who has been hurt online, whether by someone else or by being exposed to foul content, is a girl at risk who can appear to be entirely functional. Externally, she meets none of the criteria of youth at risk. She attends a good seminary, dresses properly, and adheres to the commonly accepted rules. But inside she is torn and scarred. People she has never even met are playing on her emotions, defiling her innocence, and hurting her soul.
When a young girl experiences such trauma and has nobody to share it with, continuing to lead an outwardly “normal” life even as she suffers inside, her soul is in great danger – sometimes even more so than your “real dropout.” A girl who lives a “double life” suffers from a sort of split personality. Feelings of confusion flood her mind. She wants a Charedi life that she knows is for her good, while simultaneously feeling entirely detached from it.
Chani, a girl I had a chance to work with, is a true example of such a case. Chani studied at a leading seminary and was considered a stellar student, well-behaved and modest. But from ninth grade and up she found herself watching dangerous materials and corresponding with strangers. She told nobody – not her parents who would “die on the spot” (as she put it), nor anyone in the educational system that tried to instill in her a fear of Heaven.
Only many years later, at age 28, following many long years of singlehood during which she tried repeatedly to find her match and establish a Jewish home, did her parents finally send her to therapy. At this stage she allowed herself to open up and revealed her tortuous story. She said she could not possibly marry a God-fearing ben Torah like those proposed to her, as “only I know the truth about myself,” and the truth is that she is unworthy of such a person. In therapy, the therapist explained to her that “a person is led where they wish to go” and “where there is a will there is the way.” She figured out what her real desire was, and when she set aside all her fears, pain, guilt, shame, and self-disgust, she discovered that she wanted a life of Torah and fear of Heaven. She personified “teshuva out of love,” succeeded (together with her therapist) in identifying the root of her addiction and double life, and understood that her desires do not define her.
The Attitude Towards the Internet in Seminaries
Girls like Chani, of whom there are unfortunately not few, find huge difficulty today in confiding in somebody. They are part of the normative educational framework, yet they have no-one to talk to about their problems. Even as they cry out for help, they find nobody to turn to. The educational staff is unaware of the dangers online, and they certainly do not know how to help girls caught up in online affairs or suffering from exposure to inappropriate materials. Thus, the girls are at risk of falling deeper and deeper into the abyss, without ever being defined as “youth at risk.”
In most seminaries, the attitude to the Internet in all its aspects begins and ends with the argument that it is entirely anathema. The working assumption of the seminaries is that cyberspace is an entirely forbidden zone. What point, then, is there of speaking about something that does not exist in our world? The fact that students in higher classes sometimes take courses that require them to make use of the net somehow passes unnoticed.
From my knowledge of what goes on in practice, I dare say that Internet usage by seminary girls is very widespread. It exists in every seminary in significant numbers, and the more “modern” the seminary, the higher the percentages. In addition, it is fair to assume that this phenomenon has greatly expanded over the period of corona lockdowns
I have no precise data regarding the scope of girls’ exposure to the Internet and their surfing habits. However, it is no secret that most Charedi homes have Internet access in one form or another. From my knowledge of what goes on in practice, I dare say that Internet usage by seminary girls is very widespread. It exists in every seminary in significant numbers, and the more “modern” the seminary, the higher the percentages. In addition, it is fair to assume that this phenomenon has greatly expanded over the period of corona lockdowns.
Did the seminaries think to speak with girls about Internet usage during those long months during which they were stuck at home? Did they at least explain what the dangers are, or offer help to girls who needed it? We are starting to see more public attention around this issue, but unfortunately even the more open-minded seminaries would rather remain silent and bury their heads in the sand, pretending none of this is happening.
To create a change that can help girls like Miri and save girls like Chani, we need to understand cyberspace and accept that it is part of today’s everyday life. Ignoring the existence of the Internet will not help girls who are using it unsafely; it will only abandon them to the enormous spiritual wasteland awaiting them online.
What do we need to do?
Speak with our girls about the emotional dangers of Internet use runs the risk of breaking the Charedi taboo and effectively legitimizing the net. By warning against using unsafe usage, we imply that safe use is possible and ever permitted. However, reality proves that an ostrich policy does not spare us this trial. To avoid betraying our educational role, we have no choice: Instead of just speaking about the “forbidden” we must also explain why it is forbidden and provide an effective toolbox for our struggling students. We must not only mention spiritual dangers, about which our teens have heard quite enough, but also discuss emotional and physical dangers.
Every institution clearly needs to make its own decisions as to how explicit it should be, depending on the community it serves. However, we should all begin with the understanding that silence is perilous, and that a “we don’t talk about such things” policy will inevitably lead to our students never asking for the help they need.
An effective change will require us to adopt multiple methods. First, awareness. Awareness, awareness, and more awareness. We need to bravely look reality in the face and recognize that Bais Yaakov students are exposed to the cyberworld. This is a call on parents and educational staff: They need to get educated themselves, become acquainted with the subject and its different facets, and even undergo professional training if need be.
Second, we need a change in the discourse. Instead of just talking about the prohibition on technology, we should talk about how the online world offers temporary thrills that could disrupt one’s emotional balance, and speak of the risk of becoming entangled in a virtual reality that could potentially harm future relationships. If needed, we should also speak of addiction and the dangers of the net
Second, we need a change in the discourse. Instead of just talking about the prohibition on technology, we should talk about how the online world offers temporary thrills that could disrupt one’s emotional balance, and speak of the risk of becoming entangled in a virtual reality that could potentially harm future relationships. If needed, we should also speak of addiction and the dangers of the net. In addition, it is very important to train educational staff in seminaries to identify the signs and symptoms of addiction and abuse, including dissociation and depression.
To touch our students’ hearts and to establish a real connection we cannot rely solely on preaching. If the information about the dangers of the virtual world is conveyed through lectures laden with weighty moralizing, the girls will dismiss our dire warnings as irrelevant babbling. If we want to be listened to, we need to change our tone. We must not resort to moral platitudes, but find the best way to drive home the message that cyberspace is exciting but not real.
Last but certainly not least, every seminary should be working with an appointed individual who can be approached by students seeking help. This should not be the school counselor; the girls fear (rightly or otherwise) that she is in cohorts with the principal, and are reticent to open up to her. It is supremely important that every girl, in every seminary no matter how well-reputed, will have a trusted go-to person in times of distress. Teenagers need a supportive adult who will listen without judging, and who will offer them help, not criticism. This person does not have to be a member of the educational staff. It can be someone from an outside organization, or even someone students are familiar with from the neighborhood. The important thing is that a girl who stumbles and experiences a crisis should not feel there is nobody to turn to. She needs to feel that she is not alone.
Moreover, instead of merely waiting for the girls to come to us with their problems, we need to actively look for them. If today’s danger is not just “walking the streets” but also “surfing the net,” we need to be aware of this and know where to find girls who might need assistance. The aim is obviously not to track the girl down and expel her; this will only make things much worse. We need to be there for her and to offer help.
All of us share the responsibility for becoming loving, inclusive, and present influences in our teenagers’ lives. It is our sacred duty to provide every wounded soul with compassion, security, and safety; and it is our no-less-sacred duty to do everything we can to ensure that our not-at-risk girls don’t get wounded.
Photo by Raychan on Unsplash