It’s that time of year again. School is wrapping up and, for many families, this means it’s time to start packing for a summer away at camp. Cot-sized sheets need to be ordered and clothes need to be labeled, but there’s one item that often remains off the camp packing list: the cell phone.
I was lucky enough to be born into a camp family. My grandfather and uncle both owned and ran sleepaway camps, which meant I got to spend my childhood as a camper and three summers as a counselor. Some of my best camp memories stem from being in the bunk cellphone-less: my counselor playing her guitar while we all sang along, painting each others nails, and all of us putting our towels down on the bunk floor to create makeshift “picnics.” I like to think that being a cellphone-less camper also awarded me with some skills: I learned magic tricks and how to solve a Rubik’s cube in under two minutes. Even more valuably, I learned that I can entertain myself without technology, that the world doesn’t end if I don’t look at my Instagram feed for six weeks, and that receiving a letter or a package is SO much better than a text.
Just as schools have been forced to adopt more lenient cell phone policies to keep up with today’s children, summer camps are considering the same. My old summer camp now has a cell phone policy as follows: campers aged twelve and under must leave their phones at home. Campers thirteen and over may bring their cellphones to camp but they cannot take them out of their cabins.
This caused me to wonder if this sort of compromise make sense in our technology-centered world? Or should camps continue to enforce strict no cell phone policies? Or should they adapt to campers’ requests and allow them to have their cellphones without restriction—summer camp is about fun and independence, after all.
To me, the solution isn’t very straight forward. While I loved my cell-phone-free camp experience, as a counselor I heard lots of negative feedback about the cell phone policy in place from campers and parents alike.
So, have we gotten to the point where kids might opt out of summer camp due to not wanting to give up their phone for a summer? I like to think that for veteran campers, the answer would be no. They know camp can be a blast without their cell phones. The group I’m more concerned about is first year campers, regardless of their age. Going to camp takes a lot of courage. Smartphones are familiar and most of our society, kids included, feel somewhat dependent on them. Perhaps a first time camper is worried they won’t make friends: if they had their phone they could have another way to keep themselves busy during down time in the bunk. For the younger campers, knowing that they could text their parent about their day before going to bed could reduce significant precamp anxiety. I fear that, for an already hesitant first-time camper, having to give up their smartphone might be the tipping point to want to stay at home for the summer.
While the campers do resist unplugging, as a camp counselor I have found that it’s often the parents who end up sneaking a cell phone into their camper’s luggage. “Kid-sick” parents might be even more common than homesick campers. Parents are accustomed to knowing where their kids are and what they are up to at all times. At camp, they will no longer be a text or phone call away, which can be uncomfortable and scary.
Tricia Gould, co-director of Independent Lake Camp in Lakewood, PA, agreed that she tends to receive more complaints about the camp's cell phone policy from parents rather than campers: “in our sort of culture, [where parents are] used to constant communication and constant checking up, I think they have a hard time.” She added that parents often just want some sort of signal that their child is doing well, which could simply be a picture of the camper uploaded to the camp Facebook page.
Researchers from Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan recently performed a study on the effects cellphones have on campers. After surveying 620 camp staff members representing 331 camps, the study yielded a variety of thoughts and observations on the advantages and disadvantages of allowing phones. One disadvantage the study noted that I found particularly interesting was that some campers were more hesitant to participate in talent shows or other activities when cellphones were present because they feared embarrassment from pictures or videos showing up on social media.
The study also found camp staff who believed that the campers eventually learned to enjoy the “social media vacation” and even felt “relieved.” With more and more studies pointing to social media leading to anxiety and depression particularly in adolescent girls, perhaps it’s especially valuable for them to unplug for a few weeks over the summer.
Others who participated in the study noted that smartphones make things difficult for camp administrators because they do much more than just call and text. For example, a camper’s phone is also their alarm, their camera, their watch, and their mp3 player.
The study also recognized the emergence of tech-camps, and non-tech camps who are beginning to integrate technology into their activities. In our society, fun and learning is increasingly done through technology, and it makes sense that our camps match this. I worked at a tech camp last summer and found that there were groups of kids who have their most fun through technology. Some of their strongest social interactions occurred when they played on each other’s Minecraft servers while sitting side by side. While I still believe firmly in the importance of learning in-person social skills, it also doesn’t seem right if a camper who has some trouble making friends is miserable at camp when they could have had a much easier time if they were allowed to use some technology to aid their interactions.
Even at this tech camp, our director stressed the importance of getting the kids off the screens and outside: we had plenty of tech-free time and it seems like finding a way to achieve this sort of balance could be a good goal for all camps. However, an in-between policy could also be problematic. When I was a camper, I recall a friend of mine returning to the cabin devastated after visiting the computer lab and learning about the passing of her grandmother via Facebook. Her family had intended to wait to tell her until they could do so in person, but the in-between tech policy led to this miscommunication. On the subject of computer labs, however, I think it should also be noted that this camp has many international campers, which makes having computer access incredibly valuable as it’s the best way for international campers to get in touch with people at home.
There is no doubt among experts that sleepaway camp is a place where lots of important social-emotional development occurs. Whether or not this is done best with or without cell phones is still up for debate. At Independent Lake Camp, Gould believes that having cell phones with some limitations is ultimately the best for her campers: “If they have a choice to use their phone and choose to do something else, that is the best long term lesson to learn.” She noted that at a camp that wants to foster campers’ independence by allowing them to choose their own activities, it doesn’t make sense to implement multiple external constraints, even on cell phones.
To conclude, I don’t believe that there is a camp that is doing it “right” or “wrong” when it comes to a cell phone policy. That being said, certain campers might do better in camp environments with certain technology policies. If you feel that this is the case for your camper, or if you strongly believe in a strict, traditional, no technology experience, then it certainly makes sense to research these policies before choosing a camp. If this isn’t the case, then I’d recommend choosing your camp based on something else—perhaps friends, activities offered, or the location—and then try your best to follow the rules the camp has set in place. If you break them, you run the risk of isolating your camper (a camper might use a snuck in cellphone in the bathroom stall instead of socializing with their peers). Place your trust in the camp administrators: they have loads of experience and are doing what they believe will give their campers the best experience possible.
From my experience as both a camper and counselor, I’ve put together some tips for dealing with a cell phone policy at camp:
For the Younger Camper:
Send an encouraging letter or postcard ahead of the start of their time at camp so that they can receive something on their first or second day.
Before camp, practice addressing envelopes with your camper at home, and send them with these pre-addressed and pre-stamped envelopes to make writing letters easier.
Together, make a list of addresses of people your camper can send letters to: their best friend, their grandma, etc. Having them brainstorm who they want to write to will make them excited about their new ability to independently communicate.
Likewise, send out their camp address to relatives or close friends so that your camper can receive more mail.
Remember that camp counselors and directors have loads of experience dealing with first time campers, homesickness, and any other problem that may arise. If you haven’t heard anything from your camper, it’s likely because they are having too much fun to find time to write a letter home.
For the Older Camper:
If your camp allows it, send them with a camera to capture memories. While digital cameras are great, film cameras are an awesome way to stay unplugged and it can be a fun surprise to get them developed at the end of camp. For teenage girls wary of being Instagram-free for a few weeks, consider gifting them a Polaroid (with plenty of film!). They’re incredibly popular and instantly create memories that can be put up in the cabin right away.
Get a watch! Most teenagers are dependent on their phone for knowing the time (and they don’t like not knowing it). A waterproof one with an alarm can be very helpful for camp.
If they are allowed to have their phone with them, encourage them to limit their time on it. Perhaps consider not packing headphones. Instead, send them with a deck of cards, friendship bracelet string, Apples to Apples, or other board games. Group games are a great way to encourage your camper to develop those strong camp friendships.
Some campers may feel anxious or insecure about not knowing what is going on with their “home” friends. Assure them that their home friends will miss them while they’re away but will still be their friends when they get back. Encourage your camper to exchange addresses with their friends for the purpose of letter writing.