The mass rally of charedim at Citi Field last Sunday addressed what members of that community consider the evils of the internet and electronic devices. According to experts at an April 29 program held at Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah, the Internet and electronic devices can be a source of addictive behaviors that can have damaging effects on youth and adults alike.

Rabbi Yale Butler, who directs the department of community programming of Lander College, introduced a panel of three professors from Lander (part of the Touro College and University system) to discuss the topic of “Addictive Behaviors Among Our Young: Internet, Gambling, Drinking, Eating, Shopping & Texting.” Butler noted that “young people spend an inordinate amount of time unsupervised on the Internet. It’s an addictive factor in people’s lives.” The Teaneck resident added that texting and shopping are other examples of issues that can reach the level of addiction, and that have begun to plague the religious community.

“In the old days, kids had teddy bears. Now they go to sleep with the phone tucked under the pillow,” said Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, the keynote speaker. Goldwasser, author of the book “The Addicted Soul,” has addressed issues of addiction in his book, in his counseling practice, and in the classroom. Goldwasser’s voice and philosophy is familiar to listeners of the JM in the AM Jewish Moments in the Morning radio program (on WFMU), as he presents a daily segment called Morning Chizuk (inspirational encouragement).

Weaving clinical insights with Torah and talmudic sources, Goldwasser discussed how people can be sucked into addictions and not even know it. “We are in a wave of addiction. Hollywood is addicted. We are in a generation where we understand that addictions are all around us,” he said. “Kids have access to the internet. They can stay up all night long and their parents won’t even know what they’re doing.”

‘Am I an addict?’

He reported that individuals come to him and confess, “‘I drink l’chaim. Does that make me an addict?’ ‘Occasionally I smoke a joint. Is there anything to worry about?’ ‘I’m texting and I can’t put it down. Does that mean I have a problem?'” Goldwasser continued, “Addictions are among us. They happen to us religious people, committed people. It knows no boundaries. It’s important for us to know that we have propensity for addicted lives.”

“It is important to let them understand what it is beforehand. Maybe if they read about it, they may not fall prey to it. It’s something we shouldn’t shy away from talking about.” In response to this need in the community, Goldwasser published a pamphlet on the topic, but soon saw a need for more. Hence he completed his book, “The Addicted Soul” (2012, Israel Bookshop Publications, Lakewood), which has chapters with such titles as Internet/Computer Addiction, Texting Addiction, Drug Addiction, Alcohol Addiction, Gambling Addiction, Shopping Addiction, and Food Addiction.

In his talk, he cited several case studies from the book and from his practice – stories of real people who suffered with some of these addictions. “Some people are not aware of a shopping addiction. It can grow to a point where it can affect the family – they become all consumed by shopping,” he said.

“There was a 19-year-old girl who shoplifted bandaids and ointment. One of the help in the store was watching and caught her. He called the police and they booked her, and gave her a trial date. It wasn’t until this point that she realized what she had been doing. The compulsion doesn’t allow them to stop.”

He spoke of eating addictions that are fed by a culture that provides many opportunities to eat “at an unhealthy level.” The affairs we attend have a lot of food, he said. “It could contribute to an individual losing control.”

Women ‘catching up’

The therapy he has practiced and discusses in his book involves a 12-step program, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. “I tailor-made the 12-step program for a spiritual setting, according to the Torah,” he said. “They have to accept that they have to change their life, and that there’s a greater power. They need to go through the compulsion, why they feel they need to eat it. Exploring the issues definitely helps. We try to resolve some issues in the person’s life.”

“When a person sees that someone is involved and they have the guidance, if they want to get better, they will,” said Goldwasser.

Goldwasser, who has clients from New York as well as from Europe, Australia, and South Africa, reported that he has observed changes in addictive behaviors in the population over the past few years. In the past, most of the problems encountered by men involved drugs, alcohol and gambling, and women had problems with eating disorders. “Now all the compulsions for men have crossed over, and the female population is steadily catching up,” he said. “For eating disorders, now it’s 15 percent men with eating disorders. It may be more than that, but it is under-reported.”

Men are ashamed of admitting they suffer from those problems, and when they do confront them, “it is under very quiet, confidential, secret meetings.”

Goldwasser is particularly concerned with the challenges faced by youth in the community. “So many young people have the biggest test that anyone can imagine. It’s glorified and it’s hard for a person not to get involved,” he said. “See what the songs are about. See what’s glorified in the songs: drugs, drinking, internet, immorality.”

He recounted the story of a young woman who was facing a two-day yom tov (festival days with religious restrictions similar to those for a Shabbat). “She knew that she wouldn’t be able to face it with an iPad and iPhone in the house.” Rather than be tempted to violate the festival’s restrictions, she brought the devices to Goldwasser to keep in his house until the festival ended.

Early intervention crucial

Professor Naomi (Nechama) Klapper, another Teaneck resident and a panelist at the event, said that she has seen addictive problems dramatically increase. Klapper, who is deputy chairman of the Psychology Department at Lander College for Women and director of its Guidance Center, emphasized the importance of early intervention.

“Raise awareness that the addicted behaviors are treatable,” she said. “Texting, internet, eating, shopping are all normal behaviors that we do every day. Where is the line between one’s passion being shopping and being a shopaholic, being a child who texts and being addicted?”

“The hallmark is being out of control, loss of impulse control, and when it begins to damage their lives – their grades suffer, their work suffers,” explained Klapper. “Kids feel ashamed, but feel out of control. It’s a terrifying feeling. It has an obsessive compulsive quality. They are obsessed with food, with online shopping for things they do not need and will never wear.”

Klapper explained that addictive behaviors produce feelings similar to those produced by chemicals in the brain called serotonin and dopamine. “They feel a high produced by the behaviors….They are stimulated by exciting and potentially harmful behavior. The pleasure is addictive.”

And they are more likely to pursue those activities when they are under stress or are depressed. She reported that at Lander College there is a counseling center that helps students address such issues. She trains dormitory staff to recognize the symptoms of addictions, as well as stress and depression. “Going to a small Jewish school is more beneficial since we know the students and there is an intervention network,” she said.

“The 12-step programs raise a person’s awareness. They make people understand what the addictions are doing to their lives,” said Klapper. “Addiction is a way to avoid issues, a way to escape.”

Secret addictions

Klapper noted that young men who want to gamble can do it from the privacy of their own room, online, day and night. Young women who want to shop compulsively can likewise do it in secret.

“Smartphone technology can be as addictive as a mind-altering drug,” Klapper said. “Even on Shabbes, they say, ‘we just leave it on.’ There’s a fear of being excluded, of being left out.” You find these problems in every type of Jewish school, she reported. “You have to know what your kids are exposed to.” Through Facebook and other social media, youngsters are exposed to more people from outside the community than ever before. “You don’t know who they know,” said Klapper.

It would surprise most parents, said Klapper, to discover that they are only the number four choice when children are asked, “if they got into trouble, who would they go to.” Klapper said that it is important for parents to tell their children, “‘We will help you go through anything. Don’t hesitate to come to us.’ We need to plant in their hearts and minds that ‘there’s nothing that can make me stop loving you.'”

Dr. Allen Perry, who chairs the Psychology Department at Lander College for Men, was the third panelist. He addressed questions and answers from the audience.

The event was sponsored by the Orthodox Union, MASK International, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, and Congregation Keter Torah, in cooperation with the Department of Community Programming of Lander College for Men and Lander College for Women – The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School.

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is Professor of Biology and Director of the MAST (Math and Science Teachers Program) at William Paterson University of New Jersey. She is the Jewish Standard’s science correspondent.