How the Internet Effects Our Davening and Our Learning

Over the past view years, I’ve met more and more people who admit that they’re very distracted and find it hard to focus during davening and throughout the day.

One of my favorite technology-oriented writers, Nick Carr explains in his new book, “The Shallows” that the Internet is effecting our ability to concentrate and think deeply.

In an interview in the Atlantic, Carr explains how he became interested in this topic:

You write that the Internet encourages a mental ethic of speed and, in effect, distraction. Tell us a little about how you arrived at this idea.

It was originally spurred by my own personal experience. Like a lot of people, I had been using the Net heavily for more than a decade. In fact, every time the Web gained some new capability, I used it more. What I started noticing around 2007 was that I seemed to be losing my ability to concentrate. Not just when I was sitting at a computer. Even when the computer was off and I tried to read a book, to sustain a single train of thought, I found it difficult.

Carr is a deep thinker and it’s worth spending a few minutes reading what he has to say on the subject.

When I was at a Torah U Mesorah convention, an out of town principal whose students spend a reasonable amount of time on the Internet, watching videos and playing video games said the level of focus and concentration for his students is very low.

I think there are two things we can do to address this problem:
– Decrease our usage of high distraction technologies
– Make an increased effort to increase our focus during learning and davening.
– Start small with a few words or a single brocha and catch yourself and try to refocus.

When we started Beyond BT, we were caught up in the distraction producing high-frequency updates, but over time we have decrease the pace.

Deep thinking and focus are essential components of Judaism, so let’s try to fight the trend towards distraction in any way we can.

Originally Posted on June 15, 2010

20 comments on “How the Internet Effects Our Davening and Our Learning

  1. One phenomenon deserves further comment and discussion-while it is great that shiurim, drashos and the like are easily downloadable in English, one cannot compare the kiyum HaMitzvah of Talmud Torah with the Ameilus BaTorah in understanding pshat in Ramban’s commentary on Chumash, or coming to a chiddush ( an insight that adds to your understanding, as opposed to something that no Rishon ever said) in a blatt Gemara or Rishon.

  2. just to briefly meander back to the actual topic… web use and technology use has very much affected my davening and concentration in general. But fortunately it come back pretty quick after a short break. I also see clearly that it affects the focus levels of my kids.

  3. I just reread my comments from a few years back over here:

    Hmm. Although I agree with everything I wrote then, a few years have given me different insights on these issues.

    When I wrote those comments, my oldest was 6. 6 1/2 years later, his rebbi commented to the class that he can tell right away which boys have internet and / or computer games at home from their ability or lack of ability to focus on learning in a deep way. My son understood from the circumstances of the comment that he was being complimented. Since then, he went on to be accepted at a really first rate mesivta and in 9th grade is already close to being m’sayem a very hard masechta. Hashem should bentch all the Yidden with nachas from their children.

    (It has always been a question in my mind whether to use my full name to post or only my first name. Although I think using a full name is more healthful and honest, sometimes I want to say something that I think there is what to learn from, but don’t want to come across as bragging. I don’t see how I could write what I want to write here and use my full name.)

    I do not have internet at home and I do not use a web-enabled phone. I do have an old laptop lying around that my kids use to type reports on and that my daughter used to design her bas mitzvah invitations with. My kids can all move very fluidly on Windows or IOS, just from the limited exposure that they get unavoidably. (granted, I am an IT professional and can help them when the opportunity presents itself, but I don’t think that is the major factor). I mention their “IT chops” to counter the often expressed sentiment (at least by their grandparents) “Oy! What will they do when they get older?!” Don’t worry Mom! The nature of IT is that it gets progressively EASIER for the end user community. They’ll know more than enough to get started on whatever career path they chose.

    Anyway, back to the ikkar points…

    It is SO addictive. So, so so addictive. And if you say it is not, you are lying to yourself. There were many times that my wife called me at work, at a point that I should have been able to speak, either after 5:00 or during lunch. And I found myself to be mamash irritable and resentful about her imposing herself on my internet-induced state of mind. There are some folks that seem to not suffer from this but I think they are in the minority. And I see in my kids how quickly they get sucked in rosho v’rubo. Why would a person do that to their kids? Recently, don’t ask me why, I put a very primitive game on the laptop. Pacman. My kids where trying to use it 24/6, (the six meaning 6 nearly complete 24 hour periods, as in “Tatty, when is the last possible second we can do melacha until erev Shabbos?”.

    Perhaps I’ll post more on this later.

  4. Since this post was originally posted, the presence of social media has increased in a huge manner. The challenges of social media are the dehumanization of the word “friend”, and human opinion from their origins as barometers of human relationships and well thought out perspectives into meaningless terms that merely illustrate that the more outrageous you are R”L. the more that you will have “15 seconds of fame.”

    When students rush to pick up their i Phones after not being allowed to use the same during classes, is it any wonder that Tefilah and Talmud Torah, which require undivided attention to have any kind of sucess, are hurting?

  5. Just looked at the new Feldheim Elucidated Derech Hashem. Might eventually get it. First I need to finish the “new” Mesillas Yesharim and also my daily learning of the “old” Derech Hashem. Always nice to have these private conversations online, Mark.

  6. I’m with Neil on this. Jewish Meditation is the best practical sefer on davening that I have read.

    I also like Rabbi Lechter’s sefer.

    And of course, Derech Hashem learned slowly and repeatedly. Buy the new annotated version.

  7. Hi. Rereading my comments from almost 3.5 years ago, I can tell you two things:

    1) My three comments came off as being authoritative and I’m sorry.

    2) The comment I am about to leave is being made based on personal experiences and, as such, I coming from a very different point of view from 2010.

    I am blessed to work in a professional building with approx 35 tenets who are all Shomer Shabbos. One of the many “perks” is having daily Mincha, and now Maariv. I, personally try to not be online at all 5-10 prior to davening, because it is hard for my brain to switch from cable-modem speed to turning the pages of a siddur speed.

    I also have used techniques from Rabbi Reuven Leuchte’s sefer on Tefillah:

    I find that being “mindful” (of having kavanah) of what I’m davening really does help. I’ve also found the book “Jewish Meditation” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zt’l to be a source for instruction and direction for approaching tefillah and my own hibodedus (private informal home-made teffilos and/or speaking to Hashem.
    You can get his book here:

  8. I have noticed in the last couple of years the schools are emphasizing presentation that is exciting, flashy and in tune with popular culture in order to keep student attention and compete with the surrounding culture. I think it’s sad, because along the way we reinforce to kids that they should always expect to be amused/entertained and engaged by external sources—and forfeit the expectation that they should grow to know how to occupy themselves in a worthwhile manner including projects or learning that progress slowly and take time and patience.

    Case in point: a weeks-longs social studies unit in my daughter’s yeshiva based on American Girl dolls where the students made their own doll, created a fictional historical story for her, and had an American Girl museum at the end of the unit. Needless to say most of the girls in the class received the actual American Girl dolls (about $100 each) by the end of this project. I also succumbed and bought one although prior to this “lesson” my daughter accepted my decision that we don’t spend that kind of money to buy a popular doll……

  9. This is such a huge issue in our lives. At least we go off the grid at least once a week by virtue of Shabbos. Perhaps this helps us at least “reboot” to reality a little better?

  10. I remember Marshall McLuhan’s 1960’s book, “The medium is the message.” However, I don’t think that’s always the case nowadays. Content is also relevant.

    A “book,” whether in print, website or “Kindle” format is still a book, regardless of medium. It will hopefully have been subjected to more rigorous vetting than general blog or website content. You can do an internet search for a Jewish law topic, and spend some time going through an authoritative-looking site, thinking you are acquiring relevant knowledge, only to find out that it was written by and for non-Jews. You can also find reliable, rabbinically authored book excerpts (or even an entire book) that is appropriate for use by Jews. Same medium, but the message varies markedly due to the nature of the content.

    There are many issues with texting and the like that go beyond interference with learning and davening. When texting, family members at the dinner table are focused on outsiders rather than each other; that is the work of the medium. However, the content is also noteworthy. If we actually have a conversation at the table, we should strive to make it a source of knowledge, inspiration or good clean family fun. If we waste our meal time to quibble with each other or exchange lashon harah, we are not better off than we would be with our noses buried in texting devices.

  11. Could be. However understanding that something isn’t permitted according to Halacha is different than something that is a “reshus” or for lack of a better term, a chumrah- i.e. I am taking it upon myself not to check email/texting for an hour every night.

    Also it could be a bechira issue. After keeping Shabbos for a number of years, the urge to check voicemail after the phone rings or emai become habitual and their really isn’t much bechira (free will) involved [See Rav Dessler’s Strive for Truth vol 1, IIRC]

  12. If we’re able to detach ourselves on Shabbos and Yom Tov, we should be able to do so for set periods during the week.

  13. I agree.

    From a “mussar” approach, maybe those of us on BeyondBT should attempt to not use phones/texting for a specific time, like during dinner.

  14. I don’t think Carr or the readers of Beyond BT are against use of the Internet or of any technologies.

    It’s just that we need to have an awareness that use of distraction intensive technologies (which could even include phone texting) can and does affect our ability to focus which in turn affects our ability to think deeply and Judaism does ask of us to focus and think deeply.

  15. I can honestly say, my son loves having a Smartboard in his class. Last year, in 3rd grade, his Rebbe (who is a techie and has been teaching for 30+ yrs) used the Smartboard for all sorts of great things.
    This year (which is actually over today) his 4th grade English teacher also used it. She said it helps keep the kids focused b/c its a medium that they can relate to.

  16. Some schools won’t let your kids in if you have internet at home. Not so farfetched, really. It does makes sense. Practically though…

  17. Harness technology in a positive way to help both kids and parents. One example: serious discussions about using the power of the Internet and long-distance education (such as the online curriculum) for the secular studies component, to help deal with the problem of the soaring costs of Yeshiva tuition. Another example: Home tutoring through sophisticated computer software for kids needing remedial help (e.g., a Kriah practice CD, an Ivrit dikduk CD, an Illustrated Mishnayos CD, etc.) Many schools already use Whiteboards and Smartboards as teaching aids. Multimedia can be used to help kids learn.

  18. Ask anyone in Chinuch or in any level of secular education and they will tell you that the biggest source of competition and distraction of attention are technology and the multiple means of communication available to kids, adolescents and adults. Does anyone have a positive approach for a solution?

  19. This really strikes a chord with me. I definitely suffer from the issues mentioned. I find it difficult to read more than a chapter of a book and my davening and learning are very distracted. Being in tech I’m in front of the computer around 10 hours a day. I work at home, so even when I’m not working I spend a lot time at the computer. I’m the same age as Carr and I definitely think that’s a factor.

    I read the back and forth between Carr and Pinker. This phenomenon is only around 15 years old, so I think it’s way too early to draw conclusions. People my age are definitely transitional figures in the drama so I really don’t think our experiences are that relevant. (Though we do need to find ways to deal with it.)

    I would tend to side with Pinker as I believe that human brain is incredibly adaptive and also quite underutilized. I think that in the long run we, as a species, will evolve the ability to adapt to this new way of assimilating information.

    Now excuse me as I have to go post this article on Facebook. :)

  20. “When I was recently at the Torah U Mesorah convention, an out of town principal whose students spend a reasonable amount of time on the Internet, watching videos and playing video games said the level of focus and concentration for his students is very low.”

    Probably true. Another factor I’ve heard from those in chinuch (both in the day school/yeshiva system and also those professionals who teach in supplimental Hebrew Schools) is that because learning issues are more common (ADD/ADHD, students who are partially mainstreamed from P’Tach, etc) and vast, teachers have learned to adapt lesson plans so that the majority of the students stay focused.

    On one hand this great b/c everyone learns differently. The downside is that while attempting to help students a, b and c who need information delivered to them in a specialized way, the rest of the classmates (even if it’s only for a few minutes) are sort of on the sidelines.

    Before anyone jumps down my throat, this is just an observation from a parent that has a child that “needs information delivered in a specialized way” and another child that is more attuned to traditional forms of learning.

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