Unplugging for Camp

Today’s Youth Need a Digital Detox

By Beth Rosen

When I was a kid, I went to sleep-away camp. We swam, rode horses, danced, learned boating skills, how to water ski, and did lots of arts and crafts. When we weren’t at activities, either during our rest period or on a rainy day, we played with Jacks, we held Spite and Malice tournaments (a card game that I no longer remember how to play), and made bracelets out of lanyard. We washed our hair in the rainstorms and had shaving cream fights. We listened to Kasey Kasem’s “American Top 40” on Sundays during doughnut breakfast, and sometimes, we even wrote letters home. We had eight weeks with our camp friends and wanted to make every minute count.

Now it’s my kids’ turn. Camp is a little different. They go for seven weeks. They don’t have horses or water skiing; they have rock climbing, circus and lake trampolines. They don’t have Olympics; instead, they have World Day. But mostly, it’s the same; it’s a time in their lives when they get to just be kids and nurture friendships that will last a lifetime. It’s a time to learn responsibilities (keeping your cubby neat, stacking your plates at the end of a meal) and a time to be independent and build character, while in a safe environment that fosters community and family values. My son loves camp so much that he is depressed for days after coming home, claiming he is camp-sick and missing his friends. I can only empathize with him (I’ve been there) and remind him of how luck he is to have the opportunity to go to camp and create a special bond with friends.

But, when our camp sent an email saying that they have changed their technology policy, my camp-loving son threw a hairy fit. The hairiest. To be clear, the old policy stated that nothing that could connect to the Internet, even if it had an airplane mode, was permitted. But now, the iPod Touch, iPads, and the classic hand-held DSi game consoles were not. Only “old fashioned” mp3 players/iPods and cameras that don’t record video are allowed. Back to the hairy fit. He needs the iPod Touch, he claims. He needs it to listen to music, and to play games, and to watch a movie, and for the clock. I told him I would charge his old iPod and load it with his current musical favorites (the radio edited versions) and send him with a clock. That wasn’t good enough. And it seemed like he was going through some sort of withdrawal at the thought of living without technology for seven whole weeks. The behavior frightened me. I realized that his whole social existence is dependent upon his tech stuff. His smart phone is how he listens to music, entertains himself, and talks to friends - well, not actually talk, more like text - comment on posts, and “like” photos. Kids these days don’t actually interact. If you have ever witnessed kids together (and I am referring to teens), they usually have their heads down, looking at a smart phone, or communicating through their game consoles with those friends present or other kids in groups doing the same thing on the other side of town. This is my son’s way of life. Gone are the days of calling a landline and making small talk with a friend’s mother before talking to the friend. When they want to contact a friend, they simply text, or “@” symbol them on Instagram, or open Snapchat. Our camp would like to give the campers the opportunity to put down the tech stuff and spend time with friends the old fashioned way. And after witnessing the fit, it’s clear to me that he could use the detox.

I posted about his fit on Facebook and a debate ensued between those who favored the break from technology and the need to be connected to all the happenings of the teen world 24/7, and those who thought that the tech stuff was now a part of our way of life and the camp should allow it in moderation. I sided with the “take a break” group. In a 2013 New York Times article entitled “Your Phone vs. Your Heart,” the author conducted a study which set out to prove that habits can mold how our brains work. She concluded with the following statement: “If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.” How scary is that?! My point in bringing up this fact is that camp provides kids with the perfect opportunity to exercise their ability to “connect face to face,” which is probably why these friendships are amongst my son’s strongest.

It’s not just camp that can provide this essential time for kids to take a tech break. Many kids don’t go away to camp. Most in my area don’t go to any kind of camp at all. Summer is a great excuse for all kids to unplug and go outside and play, jump in a lake or a pool, or just sit around and get bored. Boredom is the best fuel for creativity. Boredom is what lead my camp friends and me to wash our hair in the rain, sing into our hairbrushes at the top of our lungs, and use every color we had in the rainbow pack of markers to write letters home. Even as adults, our brains need that downtime to daydream, collect our thoughts and create new ideas. As a writer and an entrepreneur, I find that my most productive work comes to fruition when I turn off the TV, Facebook and my phone.

For me, I am glad that my kids’ camp is giving them the opportunity to exercise not only their bodies, but also their minds. But we shouldn’t limit our breaks from technology to camp and summer. I know I am not setting enough limits on screen time during the rest of the year. That’s something I would like to change for everyone in my house, myself included. Practicing boredom is good for the brain! Try it: Pretend it’s a new-fangled form of Yoga - let’s call it “Boga,” I’m sure it will catch on. Start with taking time out of every day or every week and unplug. No one will miss you. Try it for a few hours a day, or be adventurous and take a whole Sunday off. I will be trying it this summer too, so you won’t be alone. I think it will help me be more present for my children when they come home with the equivalent of six-pack-abs for brains. I want six-pack-abs for brains too! Time to Boga!

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