When our 3 oldest children (now college Freshman) meet with friends, they require that everyone turn off their phones and place them aside. I was proudly sharing this fact with a friend when one of them overheard me, “Don’t take credit for that Daddy, we learned that from camp.” After an initial hit to my pride, I quickly realized that I did not care where they learned it – I was just thrilled that they “owned their phones” rather than be owned by them.
As directors of Camp Champions since 1996, my wife and I have learned a lot about youth development. In 2012, I presented a TEDx Talk about unplugging at overnight summer camps. I argued that mobile technology and social media were making kids feel more isolated and depressed. Children need a place for authentic face-to-face connections. Summer camp, an activity devoid of technology, becomes a perfect place for children to learn about themselves, foster confidence and hone critical interpersonal skills.
The challenge is even greater today. In 2012, “social media” meant Facebook. Now, we have Instagram, Snapchat and other apps that are even more “sticky” than Facebook. The companies understand youth behavior and neurology and design their apps to make them irresistible.
Youth researcher Jean Twenge sounds an alarm: “the more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.” The Silicon Valley tech moguls know technology’s darkside and that’s why so many seek out anti-tech schools and experiences.
In 2012, the average teen spent 53 hours/week consuming electronic media. Now, the number is closer to 63 hours.
Of course, technology literacy is important to our children’s future. But when does use become abuse? What should parents do to help their children?
I have learned that simply saying “no” is not a great answer. Obviously, parents need to set and enforce boundaries, but parents do not want to engage in a constant battle over media usage. Far better is to create tech-free alternatives that are healthier and fun. These tech-free alternatives should have the following characteristics:
- Physically active
- Strong social connections that are face-to-face
- Supportive adults that model tech-free behavior.
In my mind, no single experience is as impactful as 2-3 weeks at an overnight summer camp. Other activities have some of these characteristics (like sports, band, youth groups, scouts), but they are only tech-free for short periods. Once home, children pick up their phones and re-engage on social media.
In contrast, overnight camps create a world that is fun, engaging, social and completely tech-free. At our camp (Camp Champions), we specifically celebrate this fact and even help campers develop strategies to control their tech usage. Our counselors are also tech-free and full of life. They show the campers what is possible. We watch as children grow in confidence and competence.
When our campers go home, they certainly use their phones, but less than their peers. They leave camp knowing that technology is a tool not a trap. Oddly, camp, the least technological of experiences, might be the most useful in our modern age of social media.
Steve Baskin blogs for Psychology Today and speaks on youth development and parenting. He and his wife Susie have directed Camp Champions since 1996.