The Benefits of Summer Camp are Lost When Smartphones Intrude

{The social-emotional benefits of summer camp are clear but what happens when smartphones intrude on the normal camp experience.}

I vividly remember my first experience at sleepaway summer camp as a child. I was in about 4th or 5th grade and it was my first time away from my parents overnight (except for sleepovers at grandparents' and friends' houses). I went with a close friend and even her older sister was there with us.

But...I was homesick. I cried every day of the week-long camp. Although my friends and family had boasted of the benefits of summer camp, they were lost on me. My mood improved somewhat through the week but overall I did not enjoy it much.


Summer Camp in the Age of Smart Phones

Nowadays, kids experiencing feelings like mine at camp might have quick access to a cellphone to call or text their parents.

A new study from C.S. Mott Children's hospital considered how access to smartphones might change the camp experience. The researchers interviewed officials at 331 camps across the U.S. and Canada. The results were both enlightening and a little disturbing.

A Few Advantages of Technology at Camp:

The camp officials pointed out that they did see some advantages to kids having access to technology at camp. Kids could take pictures and create slideshows of their favorite memories, for example. Other times technology was used for entertainment during "downtime" like video game tournaments or music for dance parties.

Related reading: Distracted by Your Device? This Parenting Research Will Change Your Perspective {plus a printable mantra to help}

The Downside to Technology at Camp:

Many of the camp officials, however, reported the downside to kids having technology and internet access at camp. As you might expect, many kids became so immersed in texting and social media that they would not participate fully in camp events or bond with their fellow campers.
One respondent even wrote, campers are “more worried about their phone than the poison ivy bush they’re about to step in.”
One of the more concerning (and sad) consequences of technology at camp was the fact that counselors reported that kids did not want to participate in activities like talent shows or dance parties where videos of them might be taken and posted on social media. The fear of embarrassment was just too much.



Other times, it wasn't the campers but the counselors who found it hard to harness their technology. Some officials noted that counselors sometimes used phones or devices so much that it compromised their duties.

Related reading: Parenting Challenges--Resources to Help You Manage Technology, Foster Kindness and Simpify Life

Emotional Benefits of a Technology Break

There was one encouraging note in the research too. Many officials reported that once teens recovered from the initial shock of having no phone for a few days, they were actually eager for the technology break. They said they felt more relaxed without the pressures of social media comparison.

New research backs this up as well. One study found that pre-teens who spent 5 days in an overnight camp without phones, TV or computer had better skills in reading emotions in facial expressions than a same-age control group who did not attend camp. Of course, it's hard to tease apart whether these emotional benefits resulted solely from lack of screen time, time in nature or a combination of both factors. Nevertheless, the benefits of summer camp without screens are clear.

Related reading: Kids' Emotional Intelligence: Why Low-Tech Skills are the Key to Success in a High-Tech World

Besides the obvious emotional benefits, summer camp can also build a sense of resilience in kids as well. Researchers who study resilience have shown that kids who experience tolerable risk gain skills in coping and identity-formation that stick with them for years. Summer camp offers just this type of tolerable risk as kids take on new physical challenges, make new friends, and cope with unpredictable circumstances.

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I can definitely relate to these benefits. Remember that horrible first camp experience?  A couple of years later I went back and had a blast. What would have that first experience been like if I had a cellphone to call or text my mom every day?

Here's an even more important question: what would that second camp experience have been like if I had the chance to call or text every day on the first trip?

You can probably guess my answer. If I had been tied to technology on that first trip, I probably would have never made that second trip. The experience of homesickness, as difficult as it was, was what made the second trip possible. 

As with many things in life, the challenges and struggles are often what make the subsequent happy experiences so wonderful. Put in child development terms, the coping skills and resilience I learned through that week of homesickness are what made me feel confident enough to handle going back to camp the next time.



The second camp trip I remember just like a scene out of The Parent Trap: cabins with lots of tween girls chatting, camp activities that forced us to get beyond our awkwardness like canoeing, archery and yes, even a camp dance. Those are the skills and memories that live on long after the week of summer camp.



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