In the Trenches: Camp and the Changing Face of the Internet


In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

The Internet has proven to be an invaluable tool for camp professionals
since it has come into widespread use over the past ten years. These
days it is not uncommon for camps to get up to 50 percent and more of
their staff inquiries over the Net. Most camps now have Web sites where
parents and prospective campers alike can take a virtual tour of camp, "meet" the
camp staff, browse the camp program, and send away for DVDs and other
promotional materials, register online, and even purchase camp clothing
and apparel. Staff use e-mail to stay in touch with one another during
the off-season, aiding staff retention rates at many camps. Campers can
access online newsletters, keep in touch with bunk or group mates and
learn about new additions to the facility, program, or staff. Most of
these transactions were unheard of eight to ten years ago.

Perhaps the
worst thing that came from the new access the Internet provided camps
were the frantic phone calls and e-mails from a minority of over anxious
parents who worried that their child "looked sad" in the
camp photo gallery in ways no one but they could discern, or whose daughter
did not appear in enough pictures, or whose son was "wearing the
same shirt in every picture," this being certain evidence that
he was simply not being kept clean at camp. Add to these complaints the
effort it takes to maintain a Web presence in the summer (many camps
devote one entire staff person to the daily endeavor of posting photographs
and stories for parents), and you have what was for a while the greatest
downside of the Internet for camps.

Merging Technology and New Uses

Things
began to change when technologies began to merge. For example, many cell
phones, usually banned at camp for campers, but smuggled in at the urging
of nervous parents used to being in constant touch with their children,
now have digital cameras integrated in them which allow the user to take
what are often candid shots of unsuspecting subjects, then download them,
either immediately or later, directly onto the Web. In late winter, 2006,
USA Today reported in their "Snapshots" feature that about
65 percent of American children ages eleven to eighteen own a cell phone,
a number they saw rising to about 75 percent by year's end. Over
95 percent of these phones are purchased by parents in order to "keep
tabs" on their children. A wonderfully convenient feature unless
you take a dim view of campers taking shots of other campers in various
stages of undress or in showers. Likewise, many campers now have "profiles" on
such Internet sites such as Myspace.com or Facebook.com, allowing anyone
to chronicle their lives, by sharing favorite foods, music, hangout spots
(the mall, a certain store, a particular restaurant or playground area),
and posting pictures of their friends. On Myspace.com, one can open such
a profile under a screen name that offers no clue as to the real user's
name and post most anything whether true or false. Mischievous children
have been known to create profiles of other children, posting false and
damaging information about them and posting incriminating pictures taken
at parties and, yes, summer camp.

In the years leading up to these social
Web sites, there had been many reports of campers, again using assumed
and false screen names, sending accusatory or defaming e-mails under
assumed names about other campers. At one coed camp in Pennsylvania about
three years ago a thirteen-year-old female camper was not allowed back
to camp after false and damaging e-mails about another camper were traced
back to her. In one highly publicized case a fourteen-year-old boy in
New Jersey who had attended a boys camp in Maine for many years was arrested
by the FBI after threatening e-mails he had been sending to his best
camp buddy from Florida, again under a presumed screen name, were traced
to him. In his e-mails he posed as a stalker, relating to his young "prey" details
about him that only someone who knew him well (or was stalking him) would
know, and threatening to kill him. This "joke," which comes
under the "what-were-they-thinking?!" category of adolescent
behavior, is typical of young brains whose capacity for good judgment
is not fully developed until age twenty-five.

Internet Profiles

This
brings us to staff. Norman Friedman, in his Broad Shoulders and Bright
Ideas series published by A.M. Skier Insurance, describes a situation
where a parent calls a camp director about her children's favorite
counselor who has a Myspace.com profile. On it he has posted a photograph
of himself in which he claims to be either stoned or drunk or both, posing
with two females in various states of undress. The camp director, after
looking up the profile, was appalled and promptly fired the counselor.
Friedman's advice for all camp operators is to send a copy of that
particular Broad Shoulders and Bright Ideas pamphlet to all staff, telling
them to "clean up" their profiles and be ready to have them
scrutinized by the director. This is great advice, but most staff who have
profiles on the Web (in my travels this summer, about 80 percent of staff
said they did have such a profile, from Alabama to Maine and from California
to Colorado) have one on Facebook.com. In order to have a profile on Facebook.com,
the user must have a .edu e-mail address, which is an attempt to limit
its users to college students only.

On Facebook.com, profiles cannot be
accessed by the public as they can be on Myspace.com, which means that
provocative photos and copy are open only to those "friends" on
the profile creator's "friends list" he or she has granted
either partial or full access to (there are different levels of access).
The founders of Facebook.com mentioned in The New York Times front page
business section article in late spring 2006, that there are about 7.5
million profiles currently on Facebook.com. The Wall Street Journal reported
in May 2006 that many law firms and businesses were viewing profiles as
one part of a candidate's application, and if they found material
on that profile unbecoming of a young professional, that candidate was
simply not hired.

Crucial Questions for Camp

So what does this all mean
for camp? First, it means that camp professionals need to be more aware
of the changing face of the Internet and of the challenges, and not just
the rewards, it can bring. Secondly, I suggest camp professionals share
their knowledge and awareness with camper parents, many of whom are totally
unaware of the presence of sites such as Myspace.com or Facebook.com
or Webshots.com, which their own children may be using or accessing—either
appropriately or inappropriately. For example, child predators who are
savvy about the Internet, stalk teens who unwittingly post every detail
about their preferences and whereabouts, making it easy for them to be
targeted by such individuals. Furthermore, parents need to know about
the potential for the abuse of digital cameras and cell phones with cameras
and that, even with great supervision at camp, children have been known
to misuse them in ways I have already described. Some camps have crafted
a policy forbidding not only cell phones, but also digital cameras, suggesting
only film cameras for use by campers. These camps have taken the extra
step of communicating their concerns to parents as a way of protecting
their children from possible abuse.

Furthermore, some camps have made it
clear that any staff person or camper found guilty of posting incorrect
and damaging material, either as words or pictures, about other campers
or staff, will either be summarily dismissed from camp or not invited
back. Many camps have asked potential staff if they have a profile on
the Net and then ask for access to their profiles (with due notice, of
course) as just one other way of ascertaining whether that staff member
is fit to supervise and manage children at camp.

All of these polices
are the result of emerging technologies and new applications of the Internet
and other systems. As they evolve, camp professionals must develop a
comprehensive response—one that considers their communication with parents, as
well as their policies for campers and staff. For example, how does a camp
regulate camper-staff contact via the Internet after camp? Some camps have
shifted that responsibility to parents, making it a requirement that, if
their child is to have a counselor's e-mail or other Web-address
information, that the parent must sign a form giving that permission, simultaneously
acknowledging that the camp has no ability to regulate camper-camper/camper-staff
communication once camp is over. Other camps simply forbid the exchange
of such information between camper and staff, knowing that it occurs anyway.

Whatever your position as a camp professional, you owe it to the safety
and well-being of the community you create every summer to be informed,
thoughtful, and proactive about these issues.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child,
adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for Bunk1.com and
can be reached via e-mail at BobDitter1@aol.com or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In
the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2006 September/October
issue of Camping Magazine.

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