Camp Unplugged

Last summer, I observed several parents “on vacation” at the beach, checking their email on handheld devices while their children splashed in the ocean.




At least their kids were actually playing.




According to the Kaiser Foundation, children between 8 and 18 currently spend an average of 6.5 hours a day absorbed in electronic media –  most of it solitary time.




Password: Thoughtful Use




Is there a way out of the technology trap? Can there be uses of technology that connect, rather than disconnect people? What can save children from the devices of the modern world?




The answers are yes, yes and camp.




These days, even the most rustic and isolated of sleep-away camps use technologies – either for safety (GPS units, walkie-talkies, satellite phones) or publicity (web pages). Evaluating a camp’s appropriate use of technology no longer involves questioning whether it uses technology, but how.








For some families, summer camp offers a welcome relief from the yoke of electronic technologies. For others, it provides tools that enhance interpersonal connections.




Telephones. Some sleep-away camps have a “no phone/no call” policy because they recognize that they exacerbate homesickness and erode a child’s independence. Although parents and camp directors may have phone contact, campers are not typically permitted to make or receive calls.




Email. Many camps allow parents to email, which is sorted and distributed to campers with the regular mail. Email has the advantage of being more like a traditional letter, which is less likely to provoke homesickness.




Photographs. Since the 1920s, some camps have published photographic yearbooks. Of course, families had to wait until Thanksgiving to receive a copy. The advantage of such a long wait was that it forced children to recreate a verbal narrative of the experience. These narratives not only helped parents understand their child’s camp experience, they also helped children comprehend it, especially the parts that may have been challenging or confusing. Today, such narratives may be bypassed because camps are posting hundreds of digital photographs a day on their websites. Parents at home or at work can instantly view, purchase and download photos of their child at camp. Of course, this can also create undue anxiety when your child is not photographed on a certain day, or appears not to be smiling in a certain snapshot.




Video Streaming. You thought photos captured the camp experience on your desktop? What about live digital video using Web cams placed strategically around camp? Whereas some camps see this as the ultimate way to give parents a window into their child’s world, others see it as the ultimate way to rob children of an experience that’s all their own. Why write during camp or talk after camp when Mom and Dad already saw it on their laptop?




Worth the Wait




Camp is not the stock market or a breaking news story. It’s community living, away from home, in a natural, recreational setting. It’s healthy for children, who are exposed to electronic technology year-round, to have a break during the summer.




It’s also healthy for kids and parents to talk with each other about their experiences after spending some planned time apart. Technologies should not crowd out the necessary psychological space for dialogue.




To wait a few days for a traditional letter to arrive, for example, gives parents and children some time to reflect, form new relationships, solve problems independently and understand their emotions.




In these ways, unplugging the digital umbilical cord promotes healthy growth and self-reliance.




Wireless Interpersonal Networking




An ancient technology – wireless interpersonal networking – has the advantage of being the most reliable, easy-to-learn, no-cost, virus-free option for children to connect at camp. In fact, camps were originally conceived – back in the 1860s – as the ideal connectivity platform for wireless interpersonal networking.




What is wireless interpersonal networking? It’s an honest-to-goodness, face-to-face, totally free, real-time, one-on-one conversation between your child and another human being.




Such networking has widespread applications for new camper-camper connections and camper-staff connections. The technology may also be transferred, without clumsy cables or costly upgrades, to camper-parent interactions, both in handwritten letters and post-camp conversations. This kind of connection is so precious and rewarding. It may be what you and your child remember best about camp!



Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical psychologist, is co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook. A proponent of the thoughtful application of electronic technology, Chris’s latest project is hosting The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, an ACA DVD-CD released in February 2006. Originally printed in CAMP Magazine, reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association © 2006 American Camping Association, Inc.

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