Tuesday, February 6, 2018

An Unplugged Camp

During the cold months I often take the time to research different things. I find new staff training activities to help build my team. I create lesson plans for new classes at camp. And I look over articles of things that impact the children I work with.

One thing I have noticed in researching different ideas is that cell phones are having a major impact on the kids of today. In a recent article at the website The Conversation , the author "found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors."

All sign point to the amount of time the youth are spending on their phones. 

The author also "found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide."

Wow. Since around 2000 I have been working hard to keep cell phones out of camp. Many people thought I was crazy, but I knew that if we could just get the campers away from their phones for just one week, they would start to have those meaningful interactions they need!

For a long time I struggled with the policy. Parents wanted immediate contact with their kids. Campers wanted to text their friends about what was happening to them. And I wasn't sure if I was just being an old man about it.

Then one day, while conducting interviews at my last camp for a program director, one of the candidates had the opportunity to chat with a group of girls from a teen cabin. The candidate asked what the campers what they thought about the policy...(I think the candidate didn't like the policy and was trying to get feedback to support that position). I though "Oh no! here we go. They are going to blast the cell phone policy!"

What happened next surprised me....

The teen girls said they LIKE the policy! Sure, it was hard to give it up for a week, but they actually liked to be away from their phones for a week.


I was caught so off guard!

So we started to ask why. Here are some of the reasons that I gleaned from that conversation.

  1. They had a break from their parents. Yes, even campers need some time to gain their independence and just be a kid. Having their parents constantly asking , "where are you?" and "what are you doing?" often would interrupt what they were doing at the time. They liked the feeling of freedom.
  2. They talked face to face rather than texting each other. If you have been anyplace where a group of teens gather, they tend to be glued to their screens and text each other, even if they are sitting next to each other! But the teens said they like sitting, and talking, and interacting. Without being distracted with the phones.
  3. They were force to deal with each other. On their phones, they could text behind each other's backs. The teens liked it that they felt everything was "out in the open". It's hard to be a bully when you have to be face to face.
  4. It was like a vacation from their phone. Yes, they missed being connected, but there is something about being in the woods and out of contact for awhile.
Now this doesn't mean that at the end of that same week those campers rushed to their parents to get their phones to dive right back in.... But for a brief moment- a brief window of time, they had a chance to just be a camper.

That same year I took it a step farther and had the staff store their phones outside of their cabins in a spot on camp. I set up a charging station, and a place to secure their phones. I was finding that instead of talking with the campers, they would be on their phones in the cabins.  It was sending a mixed message to the campers ,and it wasn't helping them to be good counselors for the campers.

It's a hard stance to take, but I really feel that we provide kids (both campers and staff), with an oasis. A brief time away from the constant buzz of the world. A chance to be face to face with each other, and to gain those social skills they sorely need. The staff have been telling me that it's hard, but it helps them to focus on camp rather than whats happening in their friends twitter feed. The biggest problem they have is getting their parents and friends to understand that they don't have their phones on during the day!

When someone tells me that the kids of today aren't the same as we were back in the day, I disagree... I see kids being kids when freed from the tech.  I watch them sit in a cabin making friendship bracelets and braiding each others hair while talking about pop stars. I see campers making up a game in the rec field, and getting covered in dirt, sweat and grime. I see campers holding out their hands and helping other campers. I see children giving a hug to their friends when they are homesick. I see all of this because , in part, we get them off those phones.

So I guess I will continue to be a grumpy old man and not allow cell phones on camp.

 The complaints of a few are drown out by the laughter of campers.

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