Camp's Role in Social Media Wellness

Ana Homayoun
September 2017

Several years ago, I visited an overnight camp in the Berkshires during its annual family day. I watched quietly as parents poured out of their cars to meet their children, who in turn were semi-excited to see their parents after nearly a month of separation. I was especially interested because this camp went to great lengths to be technology-free, so campers were not texting, messaging, photo-sharing, or video-sending with their families while they were away. Those campers who wanted to call home could do so the old-fashioned way — using the camp phone near the main office between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. every day. At a time where so much of our world seems digitally over-connected, the camp’s policies seemed wonderfully refreshing, and I assumed that the daily photos uploaded to the camp’s Facebook account by the staff would have kept parents satiated with regular updates.

I was genuinely impressed by the camp’s efforts to promote a technology-free experience, even going so far as to make Wi-Fi unavailable on camp property. I mistakenly assumed parents would feel the same way. After all, given that most campers arrive at camp in June having spent an average of nine and a half hours per day on some form of media (not including time spent completing homework, according to research from Common Sense Media, 2015), I reasonably thought many parents would be thrilled for kids to be offline, playing in nature, and experiencing in-real-life fun.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered, upon casual conversation with a 12-year-old camper and her father, that the young girl had come to camp with a “secret” phone and a disguised hotspot so she could text her family every evening. The father seemed adamant in his reasoning — while he appreciated the technology-free camp environment, he wanted his daughter to be able to text him every day to check in.

I tried to hide my perplexed dismay as so many issues ran through my mind. This father had rationalized how he had his daughter break the rules, provided her with the means to do so, and felt okay about it because it served his interests.

But, this seemingly random conversation was my first step in understanding the increasing paradox camps face in continuing their mission to educate the hearts and souls of young people. At a time when so much is shared online and stored in the cloud — files, photos, videos, music, communication — how can camps maintain their vision as a place free of distractions, where kids can take healthy risks, try new things, and feel safe and supported? In a world where “pic or it didn’t happen” exists, how can we continue to encourage campers (and staff) to be present in the moment instead of wanting to capture and post everything online?

Over the next few years, I traveled to schools and camps across the country, learning about social media policies and challenges. At one camp conference, I began what I thought was an effective presentation on how to design a camp social media policy only to have several directors quickly pile on their frustrations about technology use at camp, including:

How can we control it when so much happens off camp grounds?”

What do we do about parents friending staff members in order to find out how their children are doing when they are away?”

We use social media to promote our camp — and other sessions [at this conference] are all about using social media. How are we supposed to tell our campers to stay off of social media?”

So many of our counselors are former campers, and it is hard to regulate who they can and cannot friend online. What are the rules?

These new complications can be frustrating, especially because the social media world is one of continual change, and what is popular one summer may not be relevant the next. I encourage camp directors to step back and reframe their views on social media and general technology use in terms of basic camp goals. The work of camp is to help instill values, and there are always choices to make and rules to follow if campers, staff, and families want to remain part of the camp community. As with any community — school, local, municipal, or otherwise — camp communities have rules and consequences, and our role as educators is to help instill the same values online that we do on camp grounds and in real life.

The challenge, of course, is that social media is always evolving. Facebook is just over 12 years old and has over a billion users; Instagram is nearly six years old and has over 400 million users; Snapchat is just over four years old and has 700 million Snaps sent through its platform each day. Many apps that teens and tweens (and some camps) consider integral to their daily lives didn’t exist a decade ago, including Snapchat, Instagram, and musical.ly. Over the past 18 months, the ease of live feed video on platforms like Facebook (Facebook Live), Twitter (Periscope), and Musical.ly (live.ly), has created a whole host of new issues.

At the same time, the values of camp remain unchanged, and the role of camp — and camp administrators, staff, and parents — in this new social media world is to realize that social media and online technology aren’t good or bad by any definition, they are simply new tools for communication. To effectively help young people navigate these new waters, we need to understand the new language of social media socialization. Our work is most effective when we frame solutions in a way that doesn’t instill fear, and instead focus on ways to promote healthy socialization, effective self-regulation, and overall safety. I use the framework of the three Ss — socialization, self-regulation, and safety — as a way for parents and educators to understand how to approach and address social media from a wellness perspective.

Begin with Your Mission in Mind

When thinking about how to design or incorporate social media and technology into your camp world (either during the summer or year round) start by looking at your camp’s mission statement. Some camps are technology focused; others want to promote a full digital detox for campers while they are on camp grounds. As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but thinking about your mission statement and how that can provide the foundation for your social media or technology use policy is a great place to start.

Meet Campers, Staff, and Parents Where They Are

It is important to remember that campers (and staff members) are typically showing up for their time at camp after using, on average, nine and half hours of media per day, according to research from Common Sense Media (2015). If you are a camp that promotes an offline experience, those first few days are going to be a significant adjustment, and you might see the signs typical of withdrawal — anxiety, restlessness, irritation, and frustration. Some of that may go away within a few days, but the first step to promote wellness is to speak the language of teens and tweens to better understand where campers (and staff) are coming from. This means you need to understand their behavioral choices, their impulses, their weaknesses, and even their addictions around technology use.

TIP: Create a camper/counselor/parent advisory board or committee around social media issues to help keep you informed on online and offline trends happening in different communities.

Understand COPPA

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was originally enacted by Congress in 1998 as a way of protecting kids from online predators, pedophiles, and marketers. It was updated in 2013 with an amendment that reflected changes in technology. COPPA makes it illegal for commercial websites, plugins, or ad networks to collect identifying information about kids under 13 without parental consent (Federal Trade Commission, 2013). Because social media apps can’t typically get verifiable parental consent from adults (and kids work around the rules) the terms of service for most apps make users certify that they are over 13 years old. Most parents don’t fully realize the data being collected on underage children who sign up for social media accounts, and camps play a role in facilitating or encouraging parental understanding, especially if much of camp communication throughout the year is through various social media networks.

TIP: As part of staff development, have a staff information session on social media that includes a breakdown of different apps and an explanation of COPPA and how it affects camps. More information on COPPA can be found at ftc.gov/enforcement/rules/rulemaking-regulatory-reform-proceedings/childrens-online-privacy-protection-rule.

Create Your Own Camp Social Media Policy

Every camp is different, and your camp social media policy should reflect your mission and the way you serve your community. Are you an overnight camp? Day camp? Are you housed on a college campus? Is part of your focus digital tools and technology? Does your camp community have an active online community during the school year? During camp sessions, does your camp promote focusing on digital detox, or on becoming savvy with digital tools (or both)?

These factors will play a role in how you write your camp social media policy. Using the framework of healthy socialization, effective self-regulation, and overall safety (i.e. social, emotional, and physical safety), outline how you want to address each of the three Ss in your camp policy. One day camp in the southeastern United States was successful in their mission to promote digital detox by going old school — using disposable cameras, taking away mobile phones, and linking all their camp iPads using Apple Family ID. It enabled the camp to fully load tablets with music and other needed camp tools without allowing other apps (including messaging) to be used.

TIP: Create your social media policy using language that is easy for campers, staff, and parents to understand (no legalese), and have your camp lawyer look over it to make sure all potential legal issues are covered as well.

Design Different Agreements for Campers, Parents, and Staff

We often focus on educating campers (and staff) around appropriate online use, but we rarely think about how to educate our campers’ parents, who are often in need of resources and instruction as well. For instance, some staff members might be uncomfortable if parents contact them through online messaging to deal with a camp issue (such as sending a message through Facebook Messenger or Instagram: I heard Johnny had a bad day in the cabin — is he doing better today?)

Boundaries are crucial, and we sometimes overlook how important it is for us to manage the expectations of parents while also protecting the well-being of staff and campers. As well, staff members often don’t know what to do when campers or parents post photos of them without permission. Again, different camp policies can be set up to address different issues. Use your camp advisory board as a way of identifying potential issues and come up with social media policies that effectively encourage prosocial communication online and in real life. Like youth and young adults, parents often look to camp administrators and directors for guidance.

TIP: Send a letter to parents before the summer begins outlining your camp social media policy, and then a follow-up note at the end of the summer as a reminder for year-round use.

Encourage Staff and Counselors-In-Training to Understand the Ambassador Role

Camp directors often ask me about how to address campers and counselors “friending” one another on social media. Because so many camps have campers who return year after year and later become counselors, the lines of appropriateness become blurry. This is especially true when counselors-in-training are often under 18 years old but are in a leadership position and treated similarly to counselors and administrators (who are often older than 18) at camp.

Here’s where things become tricky: The laws vary from state to state, but the over age 13/under age 13 (COPPA) and age 18/under age 18 issues can be complicated. I encourage camp administrators to use an approach wherein counselors-in-training and counselors understand their role as ambassadors for camp, and how their postings can be seen as a reflection of that role. For them to understand their role effectively, of course, camps have to come up with guidelines for appropriate use.

TIP: As a staff orientation activity, have staff members collaboratively design a code of conduct (sort of like a terms of service), and encourage them to edit their social media profiles appropriately.

Embrace Your Role as Educators

After spending nearly two decades working on adolescent issues, and the last decade studying social media and technology use, I’ve come to realize we’re having the wrong conversations with our campers (and counselors) around social media use. Instead of coming from a place of fear, we need to reframe our discussions and focus on understanding the new language of social media. Many campers, counselors, and parents don’t realize that their online and real-life worlds are more intertwined than they have been led to believe. We also need to realize that parents, counselors, and campers look to us for guidance, and we shouldn’t be scared to take a stand, set boundaries, create opportunities for excellence, and encourage good decision making. After all, these are the very same things the camp communities have done for decades in real life. Now we have the opportunity — and responsibility — to promote these same values online.

References

Common Sense Media. (2015, November 3). Landmark report: U.S. teens use an average of nine hours of media per day, tweens use six hours. Retrieved from commonsensemedia.org/about-us/news/press-releases/landmark-report-us-teens-use-an-average-of-nine-hours-of-media-per-day#

Federal Trade Commission. (2013). Children’s online privacy protection rule (“COPPA”). Retrieved from ftc.gov/enforcement/rules/rulemaking-regulatory-reform-proceedings/childrens-online-privacy-protection-rule


This article is adapted from Ana Homayoun’s new book, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World. The book focuses on how to help parents and educators understand the new language of social media socialization. Homayoun provides practical, implementable strategies to help readers move away from a fear-based educational strategy toward one that promotes healthy socialization, effective self-regulation, and overall wellness. For more information and related resources, please visit socialmediawellnessbook.com.

Ana Homayoun is a teen and millennial expert who draws on her camp experiences, among others, to help individuals, schools, and corporations with organization, personal productivity, and overall wellness. She can be reached through her website at anahomayoun.com.