Smartphones – the new drug

Take back your life

By: Paula Levin


“Our brains are wired to be alert to the fastest moving object. Research shows that students’ performance in exams are worse when they have their phones with them – even if they are off and in their bags!”

I have a love-hate relationship with my smartphone. I need it, I use it, and I depend on it – but it has taken over my life. The Screen Time function shows that last week I clocked an average of 3:44 hours on WhatsApp a day, responding to 145 notifications. And it’s not that I’m so popular! Many of my WhatsApp interactions are simply dealing with a flood of videos, announcements, and chats not even requiring my attention. By 4pm I have picked up my phone over 107 times and a typical person touches their phones 2617 times a day. Resolution after resolution to spend less time on my phone seems to go nowhere. How did I get here? After all, I’m old enough to remember life before cell phones and I can still remember wondering why anyone would even need a mobile phone! Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma explains that our brains have been hacked.

The world’s most sophisticated AI algorithms have been programmed with two goals – to attract and retain our attention. Our brains, hooked on the dopamine hit we get every time we get a notification, like, or message, are addicted to this neurotransmitter – and so we find ourselves compulsively, unwittingly, even unwillingly reaching for our phones to get our next fix! Unlike heroin or any other addictive substance, however – cold turkey is not an option. Another scary idea is that they suck our attention even when we’re not using them! This is because our brains are wired to be alert to the fastest moving object – which could be a wild animal about to attack. Today, this fast movement happens on our screens because of quick moving images and video content. Studies show that people’s eyes dart to screens in our vicinity – even when they are off – as our brains remain vigilant to the movement that could pose a danger. This presents a real challenge when it comes to focusing our attention. Research shows that students’ performance in exams are worse when they have their phones with them – even if they are off and in their bags! It also shows that people show less empathy in conversations when phones lie face down on the coffee table! We are fighting against our own biology. Technology has become one of the defining issues of our generation. So, how do we take back control?

Rabbi Naftali Wainer is Mashgiach at Mesivta Shaarei Torah and a Rabbi at Hirsch Lyons high schools and got interested in how to navigate the challenges of technology when he attended a zoom course (before Covid) with Dr David Pelcovitz. He discovered Project Focus, an international grassroots initiative to get more control over technology usage and subsequently brought it to Johannesburg together with Rabbi Shmuel Moffson and Rabbi Daniel Beider. “Project Focus was launched in 2018 in Chicago to over 3 000 people across the religious spectrum who all saw erosion of connection and attention created by technology, particularly smartphones,” he explains. “A wealthy benefactor had a massive warehouse in a central location converted into a conference venue especially for the event, so that no one would have the excuse that it was too far and inconvenient to attend! He flew in rabbis and speakers including Dr Pelcovitz on a chartered plane from New York for the occasion, and it was a huge success. It then spread to New York, Cleveland, and internationally because its message is so positive. It’s not about banning smartphones – which are here to stay and have so many benefits. It’s positive awareness about healthy technology usage and living focused lives, offering ways that we can take positive steps to focus on family, on relationships, on tefillah, and on life. It’s about derech eretz around our devices. If you think about it, it’s far safer to let your children ride their bikes around the neighbourhood than to keep them at home on screens,” says Rabbi Wainer.

“Dr Pelcovitz quotes from the Chovos Halevavos – a thousand-year-old text – which says, ‘Hashem yatzleini mipizur hanefesh – Hashem, save me from a scattered, fragmented consciousness.’ He added that in the Shema it says ‘v’avadatem mehaira’ – that if we stray from Hashem, we will swiftly be removed from the land, and the Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, explained that we can read it as we must ‘lose the rush’. When we rush and hurry and everything has a sense of urgency, we lose what is important.” This is exactly the effect that smartphones have on our beings – every ping or notification or ring is designed to trigger a sense of urgency. This is what we have to become aware of and resist. “Rabbi Yosef Elefant said that if you think that someone will jump off a bridge if you don’t answer your phone, you don’t believe in Hashem.”

Indeed, if you have set aside time to daven, be with your family, or to do something important and you feel you have to answer a call or check your phone – it’s as if you don’t trust Hashem to take care of the world. You think you have to control everything. Project Focus has a website of resources, tips, and Torah content to motivate you to create technology-free spaces in your day where you can focus on what’s important. “When we launched it in Johannesburg, we gave out a card with 10 commitments, for example: “I will refrain from looking at my phone during conversation,” Rabbi Wainer says. “Try to take on just one. If you try to take them all on, nothing will stick, but one practical change can have a positive effect. And those moments when you are able to focus become so filled with meaning, clarity, and connection that you will find yourself wanting more.”

I have written extensively on the subject of addiction but one truth that has stuck with me is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It’s connection. Connection heals the need to escape into addiction in the first place. With technology as the new drug, this wisdom can offer us all a way back to control over our lives. The richer our connection to our children, our spouses, and to what we need to focus on – the less tempting to replace all that with empty scrolling, mindless escapism, and surface level interactions over WhatsApp!

Project Focus has given rise to two other initiatives new to Johannesburg. The first is TAG (Technology Awareness Group) aimed at helping people install filters across all their devices to protect against exposure to toxic content like pornography. “TAG is part of an international organisation and has organised a subsidy of 50% of the costs of installing filters like Gentech and Techloq across your and your children’s devices,” says Rabbi Wainer. They will help you choose and install filters on your computers, smartphones, laptops, and tablets on Android, Apple, and Mac devices. Aside from pornography on the internet, many websites expose us to totally inappropriate pop-up ads and click-bait content. The right filters allow us to use technology where we need to without intrusion or temptation.

The second initiative to come out of Project Focus is MUST (Mothers United to Stall Technology) which encourages one parent in each grade at each primary school to rally fellow parents and create a pact to pause or stall technology usage for their children. The pacts are custom-made and meet each class where they are at. So if some children in the class already have devices, the pact might be to ensure that no devices are brought to parties or playdates, and that the children with phones don’t move onto WhatsApp. This is aimed at reducing peer pressure for other children and at helping children who already have devices to stall their full immersion into the compelling and dangerous world of technology and protect them from its darker sides for as long as possible. Technology has a disinhibition effect, people say things they would never say to someone’s face, because they would immediately see the pain in their eyes!

“MUST is a parent-led initiative because parents are the most powerful influence on their children and are able to set the rules for their own families in a more sustainable way than schools are,” says Chedva Chaimowitz, who recently launched MUST to mothers representing Torah Academy, Hirsch Lyons, Yeshiva College, Shaarei Torah, Yeshiva Maharsha, and Sandton Sinai. MUST was created by Michal Klerer, a New York mother wanting more control over her own and her children’s device usage. She too had found her life taken over by WhatsApp! MUST has now spread across America and internationally because it’s a grassroots movement offering parents a simple and practical way to shield their children from technology for as long as possible. “We have to do all we can to protect our young children for as long as possible from its dangers,” says Chedva. “And we also have to model healthy technology usage. We are in the best position to protect their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Anyone can become their class’s ambassador and MUST will guide you to encourage fellow parents to come on board and create a pact that’s right for your class.” There is no judgement or shaming, just parents working with each other to honour the pact and re-examine it each year.


Don’t let your device become divisive!

Don’t sleep with your phone next to you. Buy an alarm clock!

If you need your phone for emergency phone calls, turn off data.

Put your phone on silent and turn off vibrate on family outings.

Put your phone away when sitting with someone. You need to make eye contact to establish a connection, and phones reduce this eye contact drastically!

Leave your phone in the car or turn it off when you go to shul.

Before you fwd a message, count to 10 and think: is it really necessary?

Never click the recommended content – you are teaching AI how to keep you hooked!

Watch Torah content on their hosted websites, not YouTube.

Look your children in the eye when you fetch them from school.

Put your phone in your cubby hole or boot when driving.

Keep motivating yourself with awareness!

Contact Project Focus for more information and resources


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