I just got off the phone with the very thoughtful and reflective Jamie Cole, one of the owner/directors of Camp Robin Hood in Freedom, New Hampshire. She wanted to know my thoughts about a new policy the camp has been considering for this summer regarding the use of electronics at camp. I say the “thoughtful and reflective” Jamie Cole because she is balanced in her thinking about the issue of electronics at camp. On the one hand, camp is all about community and being with other people, not about “tuning out” by playing electronic games or being distracted by the seductive features of electronics. On the other hand, not all electronics are created equal! As Jamie points out, and as many camp professionals have themselves witnessed, listening to music on an mp3 player, for example, can have a soothing or calming effect on many children, depending on the type of music being played. In addition, for many children, taking a “break” from the give-and-take of a cabin or group can have a calming effect on them, allowing them to “hold it together” and helping them to be more successful when they are more fully engaged with peers.
So the question is, to remain plugged or be unplugged? Let’s look at the arguments, after which I’m going to make two practical suggestions.
One of the arguments about allowing electronics at camp is that children today have become so immersed in electronics that their devices are “like the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat” (Lewin, 2010). Taking all electronics away from campers might actually cause an increase in their anxiety levels in ways that could be detrimental to their adjustment at camp. While this hypothesis would be hard to prove, what is clear from recent research is that the rates of depression and anxiety are between five and eight times higher among children today than fifty years ago (Twenge, 2010). According to Peter Gray (2010), anxiety and depression in children increase when they feel they have less control over their lives. With the increased pressures of school, loss of free time, and little time for spontaneous, creative play, Gray points out that the incidence of anxiety and depression in children has risen steadily. I myself have seen increasing numbers of children at camps throughout the United States who simply have no downtime during the school week. They run from one scripted activity to the next, getting home to do homework before tumbling into bed, then repeating the entire scene day after day. For these children, having some “downtime” at camp can be extremely beneficial, not only to individual campers, but to their peers and their counselors!
At America’s Camp, the camp for the children whose parents were lost in planes and the Twin Towers in the September 11 attacks in New York, directors Jed Dorfman, Jay Toporoff, Danny Metzger, and Beth Griffin had a place for children to “drop in” when they needed downtime or needed to “chill.” Having seen the impact of this “quiet zone” firsthand, where campers could draw, play quiet games, sit on stuffed chairs, or even nap with stuffed animals, it was hard to imagine how some of them would have fared at camp without the soothing effect of this downtime. While electronics were not a part of the offerings in the quiet zone at America’s Camp, they easily could have been.
I have a patient in my psychotherapy practice who is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and who is prone to impulsive outbursts. He routinely uses his portable video game device as a way of maintaining greater self-control over his moods and behavior. At camp, when he doesn’t have access to the “decompression effect” of his video gaming, he can become annoying and irritating to other campers and staff alike. He has even come close to jeopardizing his ability to remain at camp.
So my first suggestion is that camps seriously consider including an elective activity called “Quiet Time” as a legitimate, non-punitive “time out” for overscheduled children! It can easily be set up in such a way so it doesn’t become an avoidance of things like clean-up or other duties, or for activity periods campers are simply trying to get out of. As I have noted, for many children, it can be what allows them to regulate their impulses in such a way as to be able to remain in camp at all. “Quiet Time” also gives staff a break from such children in ways that may allow them to be more patient over the long haul.
The “chill out” room: cards, board games, jacks, stuffed animals, puppets, drawing materials, quiet music options, stuffed chairs, and comfortable places for kids to “chill!”
My second practical suggestion goes back to the question, “To unplug or plug?” What if you let the campers decide? What if campers had to develop a “code of honor and respect” where they laid out all the considerations for behaviors with regard to responsible use of electronics? My experience has always been that when children want something badly enough and they are given the opportunity to create appropriate rules to govern what they want, they rise to the occasion.
Each cabin would create an “electronics club,” where maintaining one’s status as a “member” in the club (the EC) hinged on keeping the agreements. With help from counselors, it would be very easy to identify that code of conduct. Certainly it would have to address when and where electronics could be used, which would never be as an avoidance of making friends or fulfilling duties in their cabin or group. The games or other content (music, videos, etc.) would have to be appropriate and open to supervision by staff. All members would be required to respect other kids’ property (asking to borrow something FIRST, and accepting “no” for an answer gracefully!). Certain types of electronics might be out of bounds (for example, smart phones or any device that connects to the Internet) because it would take you away from what you came to camp for, which is to be with and make new camp friends.* Violating the agreement in any way would mean losing your member privileges for a specified period of time.
Giving campers a say in the policies regarding the use of electronics at camp would promote responsible behavior. It gives campers more of a sense of control over their lives at camp and gets them involved in creating reasonable policies and agreed-upon consequences. All this happens while providing for the soothing effect limited electronics use can offer without compromising the essential premise of camp — which is to be on your own away from parents, make new friends, and have new experiences. Sounds like a win-win!
*Dan Weir also argues that children never get a break from the social pressures of school like they do at camp because at home they go online and are right back into the social mix!
Gray, P. (2010, January 26). The dramatic rise of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. Freedom to Learn. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedomlearn/201001/the-dramatic-rise-anxiety-anddepression-in-children-and-adolescents-is-it 
Lewin, T. (2010, January 20). If your kids are awake, they’re probably online. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2010/01/20/education/20wired.html 
Twenge, J., et al. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 145–154.
Weir, D. (2011). Unplugging at summer camp: Social skills children develop on and offline. Student thesis.
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 2012 July/August Camping Magazine.