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Camp as Vital Engagement
More and more children are trading true engagement for electronic connection. What are the costs and how does camp counter this trend?
We live surrounded by a mobile technology that entices, informs, and engages us in constant communication. Yet, ironically, with all the exquisite ways that we have to be connected to one another through postings, texts, tweets, and e-mails, there is a hunger in children and adolescents for a deeper personal connection that isn’t satisfied by electronics. In her recent article, “The Flight from Conversation,” Sherry Turkle (2012), a psychologist and professor at MIT who has been studying the effects of mobile technology for the last fifteen years, says it simply: “We have sacrificed conversation for mere [electronic] connection.”
I suspect we have all seen adolescents walking or hanging out together, each with his or her own mobile device, absorbed in a world that is anywhere but where they actually are. Couples and friends go to dinner and are seen checking e-mail, texts, posts, and tweets, rather than talking to one another. As Turkle says, “We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being ‘alone together.’ Technology enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere — connected to wherever we want to be.” It would seem that in this modern age, what we value most is control over where we focus or place our attention, even if that means “not here.”
In thinking about this, I am reminded of another provocative statistic reported by Jean Twenge (2010), professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Her research tells us that the level of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents is currently five to eight times higher than just forty years ago. When looking for an explanation, some researchers thought that perhaps this significant leap had to do with the increased skill and ability of clinicians to diagnose anxiety and depression. Others wondered if the increase might be related to family history, since we now know that anxiety and depression, along with bipolar illness and other mental health disorders, tend to run in families. And yet, taking all these factors into account doesn’t explain this dramatic rise in anxiety and depression in children.
What does explain the increase is the fact that children today experience increasingly less control over greater aspects of their lives (Gray, 2011). This is not so surprising when we look at the fact that children have experienced a loss of up to twelve hours of free time per week, eight of which they previously spent playing outdoors (Elkind, 2010). Indeed, according to a Michigan Public Television documentary, Where the Children Play, the radius of play for children, which is the distance they travel away from their house to play outdoors, has shrunk from over one mile down to less than 500 feet in the last ten years (White, 2007). With increased pressure to “get ahead” and pad their resumes, children run from one performance — play practice, sports, music and dance lessons, tutoring, community service projects, and the like — to another, without much down time or time “just to play.” The pressure to get good grades and get into the college of their choice has become so strong that as many as 15 to 40 percent of high school students are regularly using prescription stimulants not to control ADHD, but to “jolt them with the energy and focus to push through all-night homework binges and stay awake during exams afterward” (Schwartz, 2012).
Thirty years ago, in The Hurried Child, David Elkind (1981), emeritus professor of child development at Tufts University, predicted that the pressure being placed on children would result in increased stress and mental disorders from the constant flow of cortisol that stress produces. With so much less of a sense of control in their lives, is it any wonder that the ability to be anywhere and be anyone, as mobile technology enables us to be, has so much appeal? As Turkle writes, “Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be.” This means we can edit or delete or retouch what we don’t like about ourselves and present the image we want the world to see. To go where they want electronically may be the one last stand children and teens feel they can take against the pressure to perform — one last ditch effort to hold on to some shred of a sense of freedom. In that same process, however, mobile technology has given us a new way to hide in public.
A different version of electronic “connection,” which boys engage in more than girls, is playing video games, known simply as “gaming.” Philip Zimbarto, emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University, teamed up with Nikita Duncan of CNN and pulled together some startling facts about boys today. For example, the average teenage boy in the United States plays sixteen hours of video games a week. By the time a boy is twenty-one, he will have played over 10,000 hours of video games. Compare that to the 4,800 hours of study and class time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. Teenage boys currently watch an average of fifty online clips of pornography a week (Zimbarto & Duncan, 2012). How much deep, meaningful, character-building conversation do we think is going on for boys in activities like these? Contrast this further with the fact that boys spend, on average, one hour a week in interactive, quality time with their fathers. As Zimbarto says in sounding the alarm: “Boys don’t know the language of face contact — the nonverbal and verbal set of rules that enable you to talk comfortably with another person” (Zimbarto & Duncan, 2012). That kind of language is not taught through video games and smart phones.
Camp is another story. In an environment free of cell phones, campers actually have the opportunity to participate in what psychologists call “vital engagement” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihali, 2003). Vital engagement is an activity that is so absorbing and captivating that it produces a kind of flow experience. Anyone who has seen campers scaling a climbing tower or riding a horse or water skiing or making s’mores or having a spirited game at rest hour has witnessed it. What makes this kind of activity different from texting or tweeting or gaming is that it happens in the company of — and is shared with — other children and adults (i.e., it is relational and not isolated). When campers are in activities like these, they are constantly reading each other’s faces and communicating with rapt attention both verbally and nonverbally. Vital engagement also continuously stretches a camper’s capacities, engaging the senses in an activity that has deep meaning for the child. You might say that camp is the scene of vital engagement rather than virtual engagement.
Another significant way that camp counters the isolating, distracting world of mobile technology is the opportunity it provides children to be in the company of interesting, caring young adults who are not their parents! As I have often pointed out to camp counselors, there is no other place in our society where children can spend stretches of time with eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds in a healthy and positive way. As child psychologist Michael Thompson points out, children get tired of always being taught by adults. When it comes to a choice of learning from parents versus learning from a hip, cool, attractive, and skillful camp counselor, there is no contest! First of all, campers see counselors as informed about a world they know they will be stepping further into in just a few years. As Thompson says, “Children want to live with them, emulate them, absorb them” (2012). In return for the attention of this young adult camp counselor, campers “will make sacrifices. They will follow all kinds of rules and adhere to all kinds of rituals that they would likely fight at home” (Thompson, 2012). These young adults teach complex, high-risk skills to campers, like rock climbing, archery, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and so on — that vital engagement I mentioned earlier. “They also teach character and community, caring and sacrifice. And they do it in an environment free [of the distractions of] electronics [called] summer camp” (Thompson, 2012).
A powerful part of most camp experiences is the fact that they are “staged” in green spaces across the country. As Wall Street Journal writer Jonah Lehrer (2012) reports in “Mom Was Right: Go Outside,” recent research has revealed that even brief exposure to nature and green spaces can increase creativity, attention, and short-term memory in children, as well as calm their mood. Lehrer writes: “Although many of us find the outdoors alienating and uncomfortable — the bugs, the bigger critters, the lack of climate control — the brain reacts to natural settings by, essentially, sighing in relief.” Researchers have even found that children with attention-deficit disorder are less likely to have behavioral problems and are better able to focus on a particular task when trees and animals surround them. According to Lehrer: “Scientists have found that even a relatively paltry patch of nature can confer cognitive benefits. What this research suggests is that [when we can] . . . make time to escape, . . . turn off the cell-phone, . . . and [be] surrounded by that softly fascinating environment, . . . [we] start seeing all kinds of positive effects in how [our] mind works.”
Camp can be a powerful antidote to the negative effects of a constantly distracting, seductive technology. Camp professionals have been empowering young people to teach and inspire other young people in meaningful, vitally engaged relationships for over 150 years. When parents want a safe place for their children to thrive and develop a deeper sense of self, I recommend camp!
Elkind, D. (2010, March 26). Playtime is over. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2010/03/27/opinion/27elkind.html
Elkind, D. (1981). The hurried child. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise in psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4).
Lehrer, J. (2012, May 25). Mom was right: go outside. Forget the bugs; your brain will sigh with relief. The Wall Street Journal Weekend. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303610504577418651102615334.html
Nakamura, J. & Csikszentmihali, M. (2003). The construction of meaning through vital engagement. In C.L.M. Keyes & J. Haidt, (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (83–104). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Schwartz, A. (2012, June 10). Risky rise of the good-grade pill. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/education/seeking-academic-edge-teenagers-abuse-stimulants.html?pagewanted=all
Thompson, M. (2012, May 30). Why camp counselors can out-parent parents. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/30/why-camp-counselors-can-out-parent-parents/
Turkle, S. (2012, April 22). The flight from conversation. The New York Times Sunday Review. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html?pagewanted=all
Twenge, J. et al. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 145–154.
White, J. (Producer). (2007). Where do the children play? [DVD of original television broadcast]. Michigan Public Television.
Zimbarto, P. & Duncan, N. (2012). The demise of guys: Why boys are struggling and what we can do about it. TED Conferences, LLC.
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.
Originally published in the September/October 2012 Camping Magazine.