Every summer, for the past six years, my kids have been disconnected from the digital world for seven weeks straight while they swim and bike and canoe and do every land sport imaginable at sleepaway camp. But this summer is their last at camp, and likely, the last time in their lives they will be 100% technology free.
They love it. In six years, I’ve never once heard either of my children complain that they miss their phones, or computers, or video consoles. They love camp unreservedly. Their camp friends are their closest friends. Camp – despite, or maybe because of the lack of technology – is where they feel most connected, most at ease with their friendships and community.
They haven’t even come home yet, and already I’m mourning their freedom from constant connection.
As the co-founder of a website for kids, I spend a lot of time in the digital space, and I count on kids to do the same. I believe that while the online world may hold some dangers, it is, by and large, a positive space for kids, as long as they are educated about those dangers, and learn the tools they need to navigate the digital landscape. But when I was searching for a sleepaway camp for my kids six years ago, one of my top priorities was finding a camp that did not allow electronics. Why? Because as wonderful as the internet can be – opening new worlds, creating and maintaining long distance connections – spending time online means less time engaging in the real world. And I want my kids to do both.
I love the digital space, but I also believe that among the many gifts sleepaway camp offers kids, one of the greatest is the gift of disconnecting.
My kids were born before iPhones and iPads, before Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. The last time they had concentrated time without technology was when they were small. As older kids, and now as teenagers, they are as connected as the rest of us – which is to say, most of the time. And now that camp is over, they will never go back to that. They might go back to camp as counselors. But counselors are allowed phones. They might go on a trip to a place with limited connectivity – but they’ll find an internet café, they’ll watch TV, they’ll use a land line. They will never again be as free as they were as five year olds, as free as they were at camp. They will never again, chronologically or technologically, be small again. From now on, with their lives as campers over, they will be forever tethered to the technology in their pockets, their classrooms, their homes.
According to the American Camp Association, of the approximately 2,400 ACA-accredited camps, 74% do not allow campers to use personal electronic devices at any time. Scott Brody, Owner and Director of Camps Kenwood and Evergreen in NH (where my own kids go), and Everwood Day Camp in Massachusetts, believes that the ban on electronics in an essential part of the camp experience, important to kids’ social development. “One of the unfortunate aspects of growing up in the digitally interconnected age is that kids spend a much smaller percentage of their time in direct communication and collaboration,” says Brody. “These skills are under fire because of the advent of the intermediation of digital technology,” he explains. “Camp forces you to communicate human being to human being. Real friendships are built on real communication.”
I’m sure Brody is right. Face to face connection, where the reaction to your words is immediate and your response must be too, is always best. But like many adults, I’m compulsively connected, even while exhorting my own kids to disconnect. I want my kids to do I say, not as I do. And I’m not alone. The New York Times reports that the average office worker checks email 74 times a day. And a Center for Creative Leadership study found that sixty percent of people who use smartphones for work are connected to the workplace an astonishing 13.5 or more hours a day, five days a week, and five hours a day on the weekends. That’s about 72 hours a week connected. And while I hope that my kids don’t fall into those same habits, barring a tsunami of social change, my guess is, they will be just like the adults surveyed. Just like me. With camp over, they will forever be battling the inescapable tug of the digital world. When I think of that, I’m surer than ever that these summers at camp, with their enforced absence of phones and computers, were a great gift to them.
When my kids come home, they will grab their devices and start texting friends they haven’t spoken to in months. I’m glad they’ll use technology this way – to reconnect with their school friends, to call their grandparents and say hello. But I hope that these tech-free summers will have a lasting effect on them. I hope that by giving my kids fun-filled summers free from technology, they’ll have a positive connection to that freedom. I hope that when the school year begins a few weeks after they come home, they will remember, when they find themselves glued to their phones, that they were happy – perhaps happiest – without them.