Unplugging at Camp: Does Media Use Limit Our Ability to Connect?

A new study was published recently titled, “Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues”. Essentially a group of preteens spent 5 days at camp without access to phones, TV, or any electronic gadget for that matter and this group was compared to another group that did have access to gadgets. Both groups were tested before and after camp on their nonverbal emotional cues and, surprise surprise, those that had NO access to media scored higher on their tests after camp was over. The study concluded that “time away from screen media, with increased social interaction, may improve comprehension of nonverbal emotional cues.”

I think this is pretty big news! I also believe anyone involved in education had a sense that this is the case but now there is even more concrete proof on the effect of screen time on youth. It’s no wonder that camp is constantly used as an example as a great experience for children of all ages to connect with others, build skills and meaningful relationships with their peers, etc. It is a place that is built for social interaction and is an amazing ground for working on these skills.

The obvious question that such a study brings forth is “should camps eliminate screen time totally from their camps, limit it, or continue what they are doing (assuming what they are doing includes screen time of some sort)?”. Furthermore, is it even realistic in 2014, to ask kids to put down their phones for long periods of time, not check Facebook or Twitter and stop posting pictures to Instagram? Not to mention parents who might feel that the telephone is a way for them to connect with their kids and taking it away isn’t the camps decision, it’s theirs (I say that knowing tons of parents also love and actively choose camps that have a screen-free policy, but it is a valid concern some parents may have as I’ll discuss next).

There is hefty debate on both sides, as shown in this great article from Huffington Post by Beth Rosen. She notes that when she posted on Facebook about her son’s camp deciding to be screen free and his ensuing hysterical reaction, people were divided 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. At Regpack we have thousands of camps and each has its own policy on the matter. Camp Kimama for example takes away all communication methods and screen gadgets from campers and has limited hours that the kids can connect with their parents. Other camps like Camp Kee Tov allow campers to communicate and use technology as they wish as long as it is not during a scheduled activity.

Rosen points to the idea of boredom as well. Kids get bored much more quickly it seems these days than in the days when a smart phones or tablets were not readily available. Unfortunately we have to accept that fact that the allure of the screen is more captivating than wandering outside, finding a friend and making your own adventure. Real world Friends tend to have their own opinions and cannot just be cut off if they say something annoying unlike a game figure or a virtual friend. Going outside is messy, things can happen and the unexpected is surely to happen (but that’s what’s fun, no?). Isn’t this what camp is all about? Making FACE TO FACE connections and finding your own fun. Even research backs up the benefits of time outside, time spent with peers and the disadvantages and negatives associated with too much time in front of the screen. This raises a different question I believe: what are the social skills that teens need in the technological era? Are face to face interactions really the sort of interactions they will be using most or as technology creates alternatives to this type of interaction will it be a skill rarely used and hence does not need to be practiced as much? I know that might sound radical, but really isn’t it the same dilemma we face when we discuss the role of technology in the classroom? How much is too much, how little is too little, etc. (I spoke with a leading educator on this topic on our blog a while back, check that out!)

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp, said in this article, “camp is a wonderful opportunity for kids to unplug from technology, providing them the freedom to develop deep relationships and communication skills without distractions. I often hear from parents that camp provides a much needed break and a chance for kids to just be kids”.

Even adults are getting in on the tech free camp band wagon. This article looks at a tech-free camp geared towards adults who need a break from their plugged in life and are willing to pay to spend a weekend forced to unplug. One camper noted that during his experience at camp, “you had to talk about who you were as a person…no one could “check out” by looking down at his or her phone midway through a conversation. People were so much more willing to engage in eye contact”. What a novel idea!

In another adult only camp meant to help break one’s dependency on their devices as a way to connect with others, a participant says, “By removing the things that supposedly “connect” us in this wireless, oversharing, humble-bragging age, the founders of Digital Detox hoped to build real connections that run deeper than following one another on Twitter or “liking” someone’s photo on Instagram”. Another study shows that there is a measurable connection between too much screen time and our “biological capacity to connect with other people”.

There is also a lot written, usually in the education realm, however, of the need for schools to be equipped with up to date technology, computers, iPads etc because technology is the gateway to their future and all kids deserve to have access to and knowledge of these devices as they move through their education and into the real world.

To summarize it I can say that we are teaching our kids the wrong computer skills. We need to become both users and creators of technology to truly be ‘fluent’ and use technology for good. Schools today tend to focus on giving kids “user” skills such as learning to make a powerpoint presentation. Obviously this is an important skill but you do not really need a computer for that. You are not really teaching them computer skills but just how to use an application. The skills learned are connected to presentation and how it is limited by the tool you are using (unlike using a simple board which is limited only by your imagination and creativity). To put it another way, think of this idea as if we are teaching our kids only to read and never demanding them to write in the new language technology is creating. We should be teaching kids of code and to create (I wrote a post about how much I love to code here so I guess I am a little biased). When you can only read you cannot be a critical reader, when you can write (and do it all the time) you are a critical reader by nature.

I would love to hear what you have to say!

Do you think there is a happy medium? Should camp embrace technology because it’s the 21st century, or should we be preserving some ‘relic’ experience that allows kids to be kids in the same way their parents were kids, their grandparents, etc — free of any distractions besides nature. Are the skills that our kids need in the future the same as we needed 10 or 15 years ago or is technology changing the required skillset we need to equip them with?

About The Author
Asaf Darash
CEO and Founder of Regpack

Asaf, Founder and CEO of Regpack, has extensive experience as an entrepreneur and investor. Asaf has built 3 successful companies to date, all with an exit plan or that have stayed in profitability and are still functional. Asaf specializes in product development for the web, team building and in bringing a company from concept to an actualized unit that is profitable.

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