Speaking of Technology: Understanding Parents' Views of Electronic Communications

by Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., and Clare E. Durkin



There you are. Face-to-face on Opening Day with a camp parent who wants you to explain your camp's communications policy. "Why can't my child call me on his cell phone?" "Why aren't you set up to receive daily e-mails?" "Where's the Webcam so I can watch my child play at camp from my desktop?" Whether you're a camp director or a bunk counselor, you'll need answers to these questions — and others like them — before the summer starts. And to avoid a vapid or inflammatory response, such as "That's just our policy," you'll need an understanding of parents and their views about electronic communications. The data in this article will help you do just that.

If the pages of Camping Magazine are any indication, then ambivalence about electronic communications (or "e-bivalance" if you will) at camp has reached an all-time high. Back in the January/February 2006 issue of Camping Magazine, I wrote that camp directors needed to design electronic technology policies that were in accord with their camp's mission ("The Digital Umbilical," pp. 44-51). A few readers misinterpreted my stance as anti-technology, even though I'd stated, "Loyalty to your mission is not about being anti-technology or pro-technology, it's about being pro-camp and pro-children."

Camp directors began writing and revising their camp's electronic technology policies, including guidelines for staff use of the Internet, rules for campers' contact with home during the camp season, and parameters for camper-staff contact in the off-season. Many camps have now aligned all of their electronic technology policies with their camp's mission. For example, in the American Camp Association's (ACA) 2007 Emerging Issues survey, 56 percent of the 365 camp professionals who completed the survey said they had a written policy regarding staff use of social networking Web sites.

In the two years since "The Digital Umbilical," various authors and camp professionals — both in Camping Magazine and at conferences — have upheld a variety of opinions. Some assert that weekly e-mails from camp are a necessity; others say emails from camp are a self-destructive play into the hands of helicopter parents. Some have written that live Webcams at camp are inevitable; others have warned that live broadcasts are a fast track to a lawsuit. (Who will be the first camper to flash the live Webcam?) Some have argued that campers' use of cell phones is benign or that prohibiting cell phones at camp is fighting a losing battle; others see cell phones as unnecessary, believing that cell phones erode a camp's mission of nurturing independence. There are certainly two valid sides to any argument about electronic communications at camp.

Amid this e-bivalance, ACA's CEO Peg Smith wrote, "We've lost our understanding of child and youth development and the need to nurture and provide opportunities for independence as a result of our unrelenting fear for safety." She went on to discuss the irony that although we live in "a world of connectivity that binds us," it also "holds us bound to the point where we can't see beyond the horizon (September/October 2007 issue of Camping Magazine)."

Time, Fear, and Trends

These prescient words from Peg capture the tension I've sensed for years. The camp directors who pull me aside at conference ask questions like: "Will we succumb to the force of evolving technology or stay true to the core mission of camp?" and "Will we work hard to win any battle that ensures our integrity as an industry or be crushed by cultural inertia?" I agree that human communication habits are evolving, but that doesn't mean that the habits are healthy in all environments. And if respected professionals posit that time, fear, or trends should shape camps' electronic communications policies, where does that leave us?

To start, let's state the obvious: We know that camp directors and front-line cabin leaders don't have to integrate electronic technologies into parent-child communication during camp. Even technology companies understand that we have that choice. Did you know that U.S. Cellular and PBD Worldwide Fulfillment Services have "e-mailfree Fridays"? Indeed, some people receive so much e-mail these days that they periodically delete their entire inbox. If we want, we can set limits with our campers and parents, just as we do with ourselves and own children.

Next, we must craft winning mission statements for our camps and then design policies around our stated youth development goals. (That principle is embodied in ACA-accreditation standards such as PD-6.) If, for example, a camp wants to cultivate independence, then perhaps it should let children really be apart from their primary caregivers for a while. But that's the rub. How can we nurture children's independence and satisfy loving parents who have become accustomed to frequent, electronic communication with their children? The answer is not as elusive as some think.

What Parents Say

In the summer of 2007, I surveyed 293 parents at a traditional, all-girl, resident camp and 196 parents at a traditional, allboy, resident camp. About three-quarters of these parents had household incomes above $100,000, most were White, all had a son or daughter away from home for two or four weeks, and all were questioned after camp was over. Most of the families were from the northeast U.S. and all of the campers were between the ages of eight and fifteen, with an average age of twelve.

Participating parents completed an eighteen-item, paper-and-pencil questionnaire on the closing day of their child's stay. Among other questions, they were asked to rate the desirability and appropriateness of five kinds of electronic communication, using a numerical rating scale that varied from 0 to 10. The parents' responses, and the semantic anchors for interpreting the rating scale, are presented in Figure 1.

As you can see, these parents' average ratings of electronic technologies were unfavorable. Personal music players were viewed less negatively, but average scores for desirability and appropriateness on this item hovered around 3, somewhere between "not at all desirable/not at all appropriate" and "doesn't matter." Perhaps the fact that personal music players are not two-way communication devices produced a less unfavorable rating.

Whereas other published studies may have been representative of some parents' attitudes about communication with older teens away on trips, this study's sample was more representative of parents' attitudes about communication with eight- to fifteenyear- olds at traditional, single-sex, overnight camps. However, note that this group of parents was self-selected. They chose to enroll their children at camps with conservative electronic technology policies.

At the boys' camp, there were no camper cell phones, no e-mail, no streaming video, and no Webcams. Campers were allowed only personal music players (without video) and use was restricted to inside cabins during rest hour. The girls' camp went a step further. Their policy prohibited personal music players altogether. In both cases, parents' intentional choices were reflected in the data. If there were parents who desired electronic communication with their children, they probably found different camps with more liberal policies.

The unsolicited comments some parents wrote in the margins of the surveys revealed some of the reasoning behind their camp selection. For example:

  • "I would not enroll my daughter here if camp allowed cell phones."
  • "I want my daughter to have the valuable experience of being away from home."
  • "It is fantastic to have the kids ‘unplugged' for a month."
  • "I bring her here to have a totally different environment: no electronics, boys, or clothes/hair/make-up issues."
  • "We would probably choose an alternate camp if these technologies became part of life here. It would diminish the special experience our daughters have here."
  • "I like that my daughter is away from the pressures of our material society."
  • "Do not taint the pure, wholesome, and authentic camp experience you provide for our son."
  • "If you allowed cell phones, I'd think twice about sending my boys back. Don't change."
  • "I don't believe electronic technology has any place at camp."
  • "Don't lose camp traditions to the clutter of technology. We have that all year."
  • "Let me be clear: I HATE cell phones attached to a child's ear."

In fairness, I should point out that a dozen of these 489 parents thought they might like to e-mail their son or daughter, some had no problem with their child having a personal music player, and a few were intrigued with the idea of a Webcam at camp. Attitudes do vary.

What Camp Directors Say

One wonders whether parents at these two camps are representative of most U.S. parents who enroll their children at camp. Someday, a large-scale national study — one that includes camps with liberal electronic technology policies and more ethnically diverse parents — will answer that question. For now, it is interesting that these 2007 parent data closely mirror the results of the Emerging Issues survey that ACA conducted online in December 2007.

Some 74 percent of the 365 camp directors who completed that Emerging Issues survey said their campers could not use electronic technology while at camp. This includes all of the devices covered in Figure 1. Twentyfive percent said that their campers could use only certain forms of electronic technology and only during "limited, appropriate times," such as listening to an MP3 player during rest hour. Camp directors were also surveyed about which kinds of electronics were "available and accessible for approved use by campers." Their responses are depicted in Figure 2.

These results support the conclusion that parents and camp directors may actually be aligning along conservative electronic technology and communications policies. Perhaps there is less e-bivalence than once believed.

Lessons Learned

My research last summer revealed that most parents in these traditional camps were strongly opposed to electronic communication with their children at camp. Indeed, many parents are searching for camps that embrace the natural world rather than the electronic one. These parents disagree with those who insist that e-mail is necessary or that Webcams at camp will reach popular acceptance. They disagree with those who predict that cell phone use at camp is inevitable. And they seem to agree with Peg Smith that our world of connectivity can "hold us bound" if we're not mindful.

ACA's data revealed that many camp directors are in step — perhaps more in step than they realize — with these parents. Most telling was the question on the Emerging Issues survey that asked camp directors to pick one of four paragraphs that best reflected their philosophy (not necessarily their policy) regarding electronics at camp. Just 3 percent (perhaps a few of the computer camps I work with) endorsed "Electronics are a necessary part of all aspects of life and should be seen as an opportunity for camps" and just 5 percent endorsed "Electronics may become a necessary part of all aspects of life, and camps will have to adapt and accept the inevitable."

In contrast, 70 percent of the directors endorsed "Although electronics may become a necessary part of all aspects of life, camp should be one of the places where electronics are limited." And 22 percent took the purist stance by endorsing "Although electronics may become a necessary part of all aspects of life, camp is not the place for electronics."

Ties That Bind

In what ways do electronics hold us bound? Take cell phones, for example. The biggest problem with campers talking on cell phones to their parents is that they are not talking to the camp staff or to their camp friends. How can staff help a child resolve a personal or social problem at camp if they don't even know about it?

A primary reason parents provide a camp experience for their son or daughter is to build social connections. Indeed, 75 percent of the parents in my parental attitudes study said that "making new friends" was one of the top three reasons they sent their son or daughter to camp. And 82 percent said that "gaining independence" was also among their top three reasons. But this can't happen if a child is calling home with questions, comments, and concerns. Writing home, however, is different, because writing forces a deeper synthesis and analysis of ideas. Creating written narratives of experiences actually promotes understanding. Moreover, the modest speed of a written letter exchange leaves time for personal reflection and the development of coping skills and social connections.

Once again, if a traditional overnight camp's mission includes nurturing independence, building social skills, and spending time in nature, then electronic technologies might play a limited role or none at all. Contact with parents is important, but as one parent put it, "It's a wonderful thing to write a letter. I will keep my son's handwritten letters from camp forever and treasure them." Indeed, my research on homesickness suggests that letter writing is one effective antidote. These days, many camps are set up to receive e-mail from parents, but a snail-mailed, handwritten response does have special appeal to parents. [Tips for parents on writing good e-mail to campers.]

Your Value Proposition

Electronics do have their place at some camps (especially computer camps), but perhaps not at all camps. One father summed it up well: "Electronics at camp would enable the very behavior we're looking to get a respite from. We don't want kids to be constantly tethered to hovering parents! Plus, electronics can isolate kids from their peers at camp. Instead of considering the negative impact of being without electronics, I suggest promoting all of the activities and peer connections that camp offers instead."

Some readers will object that their camp's parents are not like this father or the other dads and moms at the camps I studied. This is true. Nevertheless, even if a camp had a staunchly pro-electronics clientele, that doesn't mean parents need to shape policy. At the very least, it's worth collecting your own data. Truly, we can only know how synchronized our policies are with our parents' attitudes by asking. Hard data always trumps anecdotes and armchair assumptions.

This brings us full circle, back to conversations with parents. This summer, when you're face-to-face with a parent who wants to know why your electronic communications policy is what it is, you'll have lots more to say. Perhaps you'll even have your own data to back up your answer.

At the very least, I recommend saying something like, "We work hard to create policies in line with our camp's mission. That mission includes _______, _______, and _______. And although no single policy would satisfy everyone, we embrace this policy because it supports our goals of _______, _______, and _______ for our campers." That's a great value proposition . . . once you've filled in the blanks.

There is room on our planet for all kinds of camps with all kinds of electronic technology policies and communication practices. If you have articulated a mission, designed policies congruent with that mission, assessed your campers' and parents' attitudes, and marketed your camp with your core values in hand, then you are directing with integrity. And if you're directing with integrity, your camp will attract the kinds of families whose mission matches yours.

Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is the creator of Leadership Essentials, a library of online video training modules for camp staff; the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy; and the host of ACA's homesickness prevention DVD/CD set, The Secret Ingredient of Summer Camp Success. Visit CampSpirit.com or e-mail Thurber at: chris@campspirit.com.

Clare E. Durkin is a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school in Exeter, New Hampshire. She lives in Rye, New Hampshire, and has attended YMCA Camp Huckins for eight years. This past summer, she spent nine weeks as a counselor for sixth-grade girls. Durkin was the database manager for this study. She can be reached at: cdurkin@exeter.edu.

Originally published in the 2008 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.