“Have you tried unplugging it?” This is a question we’ve all asked one another, typically when something we have doesn’t work. WiFi’s down. “Have you tried unplugging it?” TV won’t connect to Netflix. “Have you tried unplugging it?” Trouble getting your bread to toast — well, you get the idea. However, the concept of unplugging takes on a totally different meaning at camp, where for years it’s been one of our industry’s major selling points to families. Their children will have the chance to disconnect from their devices and the pressures that come with them — all while experiencing the joys and independence that can come from spending a summer living in a more relaxed and rustic setting.

That was then; this is now. Today we’re faced with the first generation of campers (and staff) who have only ever known a life where technology is involved in everything they do. It’s no longer something that changes the way they do things — it is the way they do things. It’s more than just a handy tool: it’s also their primary outlet for socialization, communication, and even how they decompress and engage during their alone time (the latter of which is a major contributing factor to the loneliness epidemic). The pandemic only accelerated what was already going to be an issue, and camps need to hustle to act on and adapt to this new challenge.

Unplugging used to be seen as a major highlight of the camp experience — and it still can be — but first we need to shift our collective focus to answering an important question: are we spending enough (or any) time teaching kids how to unplug in the first place? As our campers and staff detach themselves from their devices, they are experiencing symptoms that could be described as similar to withdrawal, and it can cause them to struggle to adapt to the camp lifestyle both personally and interpersonally. So it should hardly come as a surprise that we’re seeing such an onslaught of behavioral challenges during the first week of camp, with many camps reporting more campers and staff departing during the first 10 days than during the rest of the summer combined.

As camps begin to prepare for summer 2024, they should consider a number of factors when it comes to their policies and procedures regarding screens and phones at camp. And while we’re not going to be the ones advocating for having phones at camp (at least not yet), it’s important for camps and their owners/directors/executives to keep an open mind as they evaluate the needs of this generation of campers and staff.

Framing the Issue

As pandemic restrictions were lifted and children returned to school, the time they spent on screens did not come back down as expected. Roughly 20 percent of 8-year-olds now own a smartphone. By age 12, that rate increases to over 70 percent. On average, tweens spend almost five hours per day on screens, while teens average over seven hours per day. That means that for many teens, they are spending more time on their phones each day than they are sleeping (Hedderson et al., 2023). 

The social aspect of screens has added another layer of complexity to kids’ media habits. Just over half of teens (57 percent of boys, 40 percent of girls) who play with others online say they play with people they don’t consider friends (Lenhart, Anderson, & Smith, 2015). Kids are using media in service of their identity exploration and to connect with others, but are they actually engaging in meaningful socialization? In a medium that features no eye contact, no body language, no nonverbal communication, and no true developmentally appropriate social skills, children are faced with a significant challenge when they arrive in a setting like camp. For many campers, engaging behind the safety of a keyboard is a more comfortable way of interacting with peers, with less pressure to recognize and respond to social cues and keep a conversation going. This online illusion of connection doesn’t actually translate to the real world unless there is a preestablished strong relationship — and even then it can be a challenging thing to adapt to.

To understand why we feel this pull toward screens, we can look to what is happening in the brain when engaging with them. The majority of our interaction with screens features the receival of intermittent positive feedback: our brains naturally crave this kind of unpredictability. Think of the feeling you get when receiving a notification or earning tokens in a game — this triggers the brain’s reward system and makes us more eager to keep going in the hopes of experiencing a new reward. It’s called “persuasive design,” and games and media developers have become pros at manipulating us via these methods. The anticipation of another potential reward creates a reinforcement loop, making screen time feel irresistible and like it’s never enough. By comparison, the activities children experience in the real world (and at camp) feature far fewer instances of this kind of instant gratification.

To understand what happens when screens are taken away, we can view electronics as a stimulant (like caffeine or amphetamines). Electronic screen device use puts the body in a state of high arousal and hyperfocus that is followed by a crash. Just like other stimulants can disrupt sleep and hormonal systems in the body, so can the nervous system experience overstimulation from prolonged interactive screen time. This also makes it harder for our brains to produce dopamine naturally. And just like drug use can affect a user long after it’s out of their system, screens can affect the child weeks (likely longer) after the screens have been put away. As a result, we see children unable to cope with brief boredom, a lack of motivation for any nonpreferred tasks, less creativity, and a struggle to tolerate delayed gratification.

At camp, this may manifest in the form of participation anxiety, which can lead to an overall lack of participation across almost every activity area — something camps that were closed in 2020 have been reporting since reopening in 2021. In planning for next summer and beyond, it’s worth discussing with your program team ways in which you can attempt to manufacture more opportunities for instant gratification for campers (and even staff). Are there ways you can learn from game and app designers to incorporate more elements of your own version of aspirational persuasive design?

Key Perspectives

Considering a child’s mood and behavior can be so heavily impacted by their screen use, a reset or “detox” can be incredibly helpful in supporting their mental well-being. Parents have seen noteworthy changes from a screen reset when it is managed correctly, most notably in their child(ren)’s attitude and social stamina. However, an effective reset requires more caregiver attention with quality time to help support that dopamine comedown. Detaching from screens can mirror withdrawal in a very real way, with symptoms such as agitation, irritability, and even random outbursts. Chemically, their hormonal systems will be adjusting to this change in real time. To drop a child with even somewhat of a dependence on screens off at camp and expect them to have a smooth transition may be riskier than we think. Whether it’s their first or their fifth summer, they are transitioning to a different environment where the food, people, and routines are all a departure from what they’ve gotten used to during the school year — and that’s all before you take their phone away. If a child arrives at camp in a state akin to withdrawal, can they really be expected to cope with these changes on their own? Are we being realistic enough about what they may be going through on a chemical level? Can we expect them to fall asleep with ease when they are used to numbing out on their device before bed? These are just some of the questions camps need to start seriously asking themselves as they prepare for the first week of the summer.

Debbie Neft, PhD, a psychologist who also holds the distinction of being a current camp staff member and camp parent, has a particularly unique perspective to lend to this conversation:

As a parent, I am so grateful that my kids get the opportunity to detox from screens and relearn how to socialize without them. [Screens] are a true addiction, and something that can only really be kicked at an environment like camp, where they are on a level playing field with their peers [when it comes to screen usage]. Skills like making eye contact, seeing/reading expressions on their friends’ faces, and learning how to be alone with your own thoughts are essential social and emotional skills that benefit everyone.

Parents are excited to send kids to camp and for the digital detox that comes with it; though, like camp directors, they should be thinking about the preparation their children need to actually succeed in camp. As an industry that prides itself on partnering with parents, camps must focus on that transition and properly prepare families for the realities their child may face when heading off to camp for the summer — especially for the first time. As youth-development professionals, camps need to be taking the lead on this, in partnership with parents, for the campers’ benefit. With the right amount of intentionality and forethought, camps can be instrumental in appropriately preparing campers (and staff) for a successful transition to camp and away from the comfort of their screens.

What Camps Can Do

So how do we do it? Let’s examine a few strategies camps can consider implementing for summer 2024 to help campers and staff have a smoother transition into life away from screens.

Make a Precamp Action Plan for Families

Camps already make a habit of partnering with parents to help ensure a positive experience for each camper, and weaning them off of technology is a critical step in setting them up for summer success. The month before camp is a great opportunity to establish and reinforce camp routines — particularly nighttime routines — and providing families with a “script” they can follow during the weeks prior to camp can be an effective tool to help ease the transition from school to summer. Camps should consider designing and implementing a three-week detox program that can start at home for two weeks and then continue through the first week of camp. Working with a professional who understands the specific needs (both emotionally and chemically) children have when it comes to unplugging can be a great way to design a program that is developmentally appropriate while also helping generate more buy-in from families who may not consider this as significant a process as it is proving to be for many campers.

Prepare Your Staff

So much of our camp orientation is (or at least should be) focused on preparing staff for the first 48–72 hours of camp. With that in mind, if we know that we’re going to see potentially hundreds of children arriving all at once, many of whom may be exhibiting withdrawal-like symptoms, don’t you think it’s a good idea to prepare staff for that too? The old adage, “first days are the worst days,” comes to mind in a major way here, and it’s important to be very intentional and candid with staff about some of the behavioral issues they should be on the lookout for during these first few days. Designing an orientation session or two that focuses on the “unprogrammed” times during the day can be an incredible resource to provide staff with, as the ability to lead intentional and meaningful programs during downtimes is certainly not a skill all counselors show up with. Simply teaching staff a handful of games and conversation starters that they can have in their back pocket can go a long way toward diffusing tension and engaging otherwise content-starved minds. Additionally, take extra time to emphasize the importance of routines, role modeling (they shouldn’t be on their phones around campers), and how and when they should ask for help. Now more than ever our staff need support with the basics we’ve come to take for granted.

Keep in mind that many of your staff may be experiencing some of the same withdrawal-like symptoms when they arrive at camp themselves. Having a detox plan for them is also a worthwhile idea to consider!

Programmatic Considerations

While camps can build a number of steps into their programs to help facilitate a smoother transition to a technology-free lifestyle, you should focus on three major aspects of the camp program:

  1. First Days. The first few days are often the most challenging for campers, as they adjust to a new setting, new routines, and new people. This includes our teen campers — yes, even longtime returners — as they adapt to having to engage with their peers in a way that will be unfamiliar to many of them after a year of connecting and communicating primarily in a virtual space. Be mindful of how much downtime you offer during these first few days: without the crutch of a phone in their hand, downtime can be a very difficult thing for campers to cope with.
  2. Nighttime/End-of-Day Routines. So many of us (yes, even adults) are used to a nightly routine that involves some sort of screen: a tablet or phone in bed being the most common. This is particularly true for our campers, many of whom will be unfamiliar with how to wind down at the end of the day without a screen. This is another argument in favor of trying to establish this routine at home prior to camp — and also a reason to provide staff with as many resources as possible for arguably the most critical time of day.
  3. Solo Time. Camps may need to begin reimagining how much time and space campers are given to exist in their own bubble. This is more speculative — and somewhat the antithesis of what we’ve done at camps from the beginning — but with unplugging also comes the need to “recharge.” Campers are arriving at camp without the tools they need to fend for themselves. What better place to help them develop these critical skills than a safe space where they’re already used to challenging themselves in unprecedented ways? Camp could be the perfect place not only to foster friendship, but also self-care and coping skills. Are there times during your camp day that might afford campers the opportunity to focus on themselves (rest hour, mail call, etc.)? In our industry we often discuss how camp helps make kids more independent during the rest of the year. Perhaps it’s time we lean into that a bit more with an eye on preparing them to go back out into the real world with the ability to spend their free time doing something other than scrolling.

Moving Forward

As we all continue to adjust to the ever-changing landscape that is modern technology, it’s important that camps continue to adapt to the world around us and the challenges it poses to campers and staff. Seventy-five years ago no one was thinking about the long-term health effects that cigarettes might cause. Now we know better. Is it possible that 75 years from now people will look back and talk about our relationship to screens and wish that “we’d known then what we do now”? Perhaps this is an opportunity for camps to once again be on the front lines of a major youth-development movement, one that helps future generations be more mindful not just about the amount of time they spend on screens, but how they can function without them.

Photo courtesy of Camp Romaca, Hinsdale, MA.


  • Hedderson, M. M., Bekelman, T. A., Li, M. et al. (2023, February 15). Trends in screen time use among children during the COVID-19 pandemic, July 2019 through August 2021. JAMA Network Open. jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2801457
  • Lenhart, A., Anderson, M., & Smith, A. (2015, October 1). Teens, technology, and romantic relationships. Pew Research Center. pewresearch.org/internet/2015/10/01/teens-technology-and-romantic-relationships/

Max Claman, MA, is a former camp director and executive who has served as a consultant in the industry since 2018, helping organizations throughout North America design powerful personnel development programs, and has led workshops for thousands of camp professionals and staff.

Ilana Winter, LMSW, is a licensed child therapist who coaches parents on reconnecting their family in the digital age and developing their child’s healthy screen habits to improve social-emotional wellbeing. She grew up going to sleepaway camp and returned as a staff member for many years.