Addressing Internet Addiction 

By Rani Averick

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On Sunday, February 23rd, Nefesh Chicago invites clinicians and the community to learn about the causes, signs, and treatments of Internet addiction, with Rabbi Yosef Shagalow, PsyD, LP. 

“This isn’t about whether the Internet or smartphones are good or bad. It’s about safety, about talking with your family to develop a strategy around use of Internet devices and apps.”

Rabbi Yosef Shagalow, PsyD, LP, speaks about Internet safety and addiction from the perspective of an experienced clinician. To be sure, smartphones and the online world are here to stay, with all the benefits that accrue from technology. Yet, Shagalow has seen the harm that can be caused by the Internet’s always-on allure, in clients from all demographics.

Shagalow started out in 1986 as a young Chabad emissary in Minnesota, along with his wife, Chana, and their family. “I felt I needed more training in order to be effective in my role,” he explains. With the blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, Shagalow earned a masters in counseling psychology from the University of St. Thomas in 1995, and a doctorate from the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology in 2000, all while teaching full time at the local Jewish day school. Shagalow opened and eventually sold a group of therapy clinics in the Twin Cities. Since 2009, he has run a private practice in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area and in Brooklyn, New York. 

“I’ve been tapped over and over within the religious Jewish community because of my familiarity with Internet and smartphone addiction and my respect for the community’s values,” Shagalow says. “This is not a matter of will-power,” he continues. “We’re set up by the industry to believe this is a safe product, when, in fact, it’s been engineered to get us hooked.”

Addiction-by-design

Well-informed consumers are becoming aware that the technology they’re using is addictive by design. Billons of dollars of research are behind the colors, cadence, feedback, and feel of devices and apps, which are calibrated to keep users coming back. This topic is a focus of academics and best selling authors.

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“Compulsive use… is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realization of a massively profitable business plan.”

Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, in Digital Minimalism

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Cal Newport is associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. His 2019 book, Digital Minimalism, opens with a look into the evolution of addictive technology, quoting Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook: “The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them… was all about, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.” 

That’s like the dopamine hit from a slot-machine, says Tristan Harris, former Google engineer turned industry-whistleblower. In a 60 Minutes interview described in Newport’s book, Harris holds up his phone and declares, “This thing is a slot machine… Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see ‘What did I get?’” He continues, “There’s a whole playbook… to get you using the product for as long as possible… [This technology is] not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.”  

As Newport observes, “Compulsive use, in this context, is not the result of a character flaw, but instead the realization of a massively profitable business plan.” In Digital Minimalism, he prescribes ways people can re-think and minimize use of digital technology to regain control over their time and their lives. 

Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, takes a compelling look at behavioral addictions in his 2017 book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked

Alter shares that tech industry leaders have long been wary of their own products. Apple founder Steve Jobs and Twitter founder Evan Williams did not let their children use an iPad. Former Wired editor Chris Anderson “enforced strict time limits on every device in his home, ‘because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand.’ His five children were never allowed to use screens in their bedrooms.”

Alter draws a startling conclusion: “It seemed as if the people producing tech products were following the cardinal rule of drug dealing: never get high on your own supply.” In Irresistible, he offers insights on the nature of technology addiction and ways to address it. 

Community awareness

While parents and spouses might understand in theory that internet addiction can happen, they often insist that it’s not happening in “my” family. They might be unaware that their child is in bed on Friday night glued to her phone, or that, even in a home with no Internet service or smartphones, a family member has found his way to a device and addiction via the neighbor’s wi-fi. “I know because some have become my clients,” Shagalow says.

“Parents must realize they can’t expect a child to self-regulate. It’s a matter of sitting down with the family, having face to face discussions, and developing a strategic plan together.”

Once people are made aware of issues around Internet use, they often respond, “Why haven’t we been told this before?” Or, “Now I understand why my child’s been acting this way, how can I get him/her off that phone?” 

Shagalow wants people to know there is much room for optimism. “Treating Internet addiction is a rewarding area, with many success stories. From the moment you address the issue, it can improve. People can be helped.”

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Rani Averick is a technology marketing and communications professional with a focus on cyber-security.

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About Nefesh Chicago

Enhancing mental health. Supporting community health.

Nefesh Chicago provides education, training, support, and networking opportunities for Orthodox Jewish mental health professionals. Founded in 1996 as part of Nefesh International, we are dedicated to professional development anchored in a halachic Torah framework. Our members include psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, counselors, and graduate students. We provide accredited continuing education via certification with Springfield’s IDFPR.

Nefesh Chicago also hosts educational events for our affiliate members—such as Orthodox Rabbis and Rebbetzins, Jewish educators, and healthcare and legal professionals—as well as for the Jewish community at large. Our aim is to improve awareness around a broad range of mental health issues. Our local and international professional referral network has become an important resource serving the community.

For more about Nefesh Chicago’s events, membership, leadership, and rabbinic advisory committee, please visit www.nefeshchicago.org.

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