Maybe Not Inevitable: A Case for Technology-Free Summer Camp

Matthew Pines
August 2019

In the November 2018 issue of Camping Magazine, Lenny Silberman predicted that within the next five years, every summer resident and day camp in the United States would be including esports as part of their programming. Given Silberman’s highly successful career, I wouldn’t bet against him. Esports are indeed a booming industry, with double-digit growth in participants and profits. Silberman lays out, in eye-opening detail, the size of the potential market and the marketing and competitive reasons to embrace esports within summer camp. His position boils down to this: camps have a choice; get on board now, or get on board later. But inevitably, we will all get on board. I’d like to suggest that maybe it’s not quite so inevitable, that some time-tested wisdom and emerging trends point to the fact that maybe we don’t have to surrender to our new tech overlords just yet.

The Role of Technology

When thinking about the role technology (screens, apps, video games, smartphones, Internet, and social media) should play in the lives of kids at summer camp, it is interesting to look at the role technology plays in the lives of kids in the place much of that technology comes from — Silicon Valley. Nellie Bowles opens her revealing recent series of articles for the New York Times with “Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.” Over the course of three articles, Bowles details how the very developers and purveyors of high-tech personal devices and software — fully aware of the potential risks to healthy child development — not only forbid their own kids to use or own such devices, but they are also choosing screen-free schools and prohibiting paid caregivers from using tech around their kids. Why? Two main reasons: the risks posed by the persuasive technology baked into phones, tablets, apps, and games, and the impact on the social-emotional development of kids when they are around technology (Bowles, 2018).

Persuasive technology as a field might not have been designed to maximize revenue in the attention economy, but that is the ends to which it has very effectively been turned (Harris, 2016). Informed by decades of laboratory research and data from slot machines and gaming consoles, developers have become masterful manipulators of our brain’s novelty-seeking reward and pleasure circuits, understanding when it is just the right time to tweak the user’s dopamine receptors to keep us engaged — our apps, phones, fitness trackers, and social media feeds are dopamine manipulation devices (Haynes, 2018). Further, video games are also finely tuned to ramp up the body’s flight or fight response, flooding the body with cortisol and adrenalin. The virtual experience is constantly engrossing and stimulating in a way that few real-world experiences can ever match.

Empathy

Take the development of empathy, an area of interest among camp professionals for some time now. Social psychologist Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015), argues that technology use among children is hindering the development of empathy in school-age children. Turkle details how children develop empathy via the interplay of multiple internal skills, and importantly, by observing and modeling the behavior of adults and older children. Author and Associate Professor of Marketing and Psychology Adam Alter (2017) points out that not only are the internal skills, such as the active listening and reflection that lead to perspective taking, disrupted by a child’s use of technology, so is the ability to read the emotional state of others. Further, the crucial role modeling of empathy is interrupted when adults are using devices and/or children are using devices and are distracted from observing the adult interactions occurring around them, a phenomenon early childhood educator Erika Christakis dubs “technoference” (Christakis, 2018). This is a true double whammy — the development of interpersonal skills like empathy in children can be delayed by not only the child’s use of technology, but also by adult use of technology in the presence of children.

Narcissism

While most studies show technological devices decrease empathy in young people, a 2017 article in the journal Pediatrics (James, Davis, Charmaraman, Konrath, Slovak, Weinstein, & Yarosh, 2017) found some studies that pointed to increases in empathy among adolescent social media users, but the study also showed an increase in narcissism. Radesky (2018) details a rigorous study that suggests additional impacts may be showing up, including an increase in new ADHD symptoms in high-frequency digital media users. It is disturbing to think of the scale of the natural experiment being conducted on entire generations of children, with no clear indication of what pro- or anti-social outcomes may result.

The Role of Summer Camp

In summer camp, we readily accept that one of the key roles camp can play in the lives of children is the development of pro-social skills — including empathy. We must be acutely aware that these are the very same skills parents are hoping will be developed by a summer spent at camp. Parents invest in camp because they intuit that such skills have real-world, long-term value. As the Aspen Institute puts it in their 2018 report A Nation at Hope, “They require the abilities to think critically, consider different views, and problem solve. And these social, emotional, and academic capacities are increasingly demanded in the American workplace, which puts a premium on the ability to work in diverse teams, to grapple with difficult problems, and to adjust to rapid change.”

To date, much research devoted to the role technology plays in the development of interpersonal, noncognitive, and social-emotional skills has looked primarily at familial interactions. Now, though, early indications from ACA’s 5-year Youth Impact Study show that what we have long believed camp is delivering, what parents hope camp is delivering, camp is indeed delivering. The introduction of technology into camp threatens this development. Imagine a child whose interpersonal skills are being delayed by tech use in the home coming to camp only to be further engrossed in technology and failing to improve their social skills over the summer. While a technology-rich camp may be popular with some campers, it works at cross-purposes with the development of those interpersonal skills that camps uniquely develop by giving campers a respite from their technology-saturated lives. It would be like expecting children coming from a book-free home attending a book-free school to improve their literacy.

A Further Concern

A further concern with the technological saturation of children’s lives is the competition for a child’s attention and free time. We live in an age in which out-of-school time (OST), recreational, and extracurricular activities are being squeezed out by schedules and school budgets. In this age, parents are made fearful by media narratives to reduce their children’s “radius of play,” dual parent employment has hollowed out neighborhoods for after-school play, and outdoor or play-minded peers are hard to come by (Gray, 2013). These headwinds push against children’s involvement in activities with peers and drive them toward the shoals of games, apps, and devices upon which they become irrevocably shipwrecked. It is common knowledge that video games, gaming apps, and platform designers have spent great resources to ensure that users, once introduced to technology, do not subsequently turn away from them (Alter, 2017).

The flip side is that the more attention-grabbing the technology, the more dopamine a device or game releases, and the less appealing the real world after the game becomes (Alter, 2017). Fatigued by large doses of cortisol and adrenaline, the prefrontal cortex (underdeveloped in kids and teens) is incapable of performing the decision-making, emotion-regulating duties the gamer needs to navigate a socially complex, independence-fostering summer camp environment (Weinstein, Linvey, & Weizman, 2017). Finding the experiences away from the screen to be less effective at delivering doses of dopamine, the camper finds the real-world offerings boring. Bereft of prior opportunities to practice dealing with boredom, the young person experiences deep discomfort. The most pressing question for summer camps then should be, how long do these effects linger? Do they wear off within minutes, hours, days? Does the camper’s brain need sleep to fully recover? A camp offering a video game class may be dealing with campers whose brains are simply not ready to accept the regular camp experiences for significant stretches of time after each video game or device exposure. The real world, peers, games, and play simply cannot compete. Our kids are becoming hooked. The question for any camp director is how confident are you that after finishing an exciting session of Fortnite, League of Legends, or StarCraft II, or for that matter a half-hour of free time smartphone use, your campers will find camp activities rewarding and engaging? Does canoeing press those same dopamine buttons? What about tennis? Hiking? Cabin time? Should camps hire the same persuasive technologists to tweak the camp experience in response? The answers, or lack thereof, to any of these questions should be giving all camp administrators serious pause, especially when the question is asked of our camps’ core competencies.

Critical Thinking

Let’s take a closer look at just one of those core competencies. Over the last several years, ACA has been making a convincing case that summer camp provides the ultimate learning environment for the development of 21st-century skills (ACA, 2018). One of the key skills within that framework is critical thinking. But for critical thinking and problem-solving to develop, we need to nurture curiosity, concentration, imagination, and the self-motivating desire to understand.

In his predigital world book How We Think, the eminent American educator and philosopher John Dewey (1910) recognized that children’s natural curiosity and sustained imaginative play was the precursor to the development of the methodical intellectual questioning that exemplifies critical thinking. Dewey saw that the child’s play becomes the adult’s habit. Concentration, curiosity, and imagination are the foundation of critical thinking and creative problem-solving. For kids in 2019, though, concentration is threatened by the introduction of digital devices into their daily reading practice, replacing books with hyperlinked articles and endlessly scrolling PDFs. Curiosity is increasingly threatened by algorithms and predictive technology that serve up content and information to digital consumers based on what they have previously consumed and liked. Imagination is starved when a child’s play ceases to be self-directed and instead becomes programmed, data-driven, predictive, and adaptive. The satisfaction derived from full understanding and the desire to achieve this satisfaction is perhaps the most endangered aspect of Dewey’s elements. For this satisfaction is a slow accomplishment, only available with the sort of time and depth that digital media rarely provides. If digital devices or platforms interfere with concentration, curiosity, full understanding, and imagination, it is not unreasonable to suspect that they could be inhibiting the development of critical thinking.

Video Game Play

All this said, there is a body of evidence outlining the benefits of video game play. Neurological studies detail the benefits of improved hand-eye response time gamers develop or the development of puzzle-
solving techniques. Anecdotal evidence tells of numerous social benefits that accrue to gamers — improved self-confidence through mastery, expanded social contacts via online games and communities, and the like. Evidence that suggests device, game, Internet, and app usage is at least in part responsible for declining rates of risky behavior among teens must be weighed against evidence suggesting the same device, game, Internet, and app usage is also responsible in part, for failing to develop stable long-term relationships, poor mental health outcomes, and even reduced rates of driver’s license acquisition. These negative outcomes also afflict much of the adult population — but given the singular importance of childhood and adolescence on brain development, camps have an obligation to minimize any cognitive harms, known or unknown.

A Camp Context

Summers are a finite, valuable resource for children, and every option taken during those few, fleeting summers comes with an opportunity cost. So, when we are considering the question of the adoption of technology in summer camp, the benefits or drawbacks of technology use must be considered in a camp context, in the context of summer’s potential as an antidote to the everyday. Instead of asking does the individual camper benefit or suffer from the use of this device right now, we should consider the question, what are we doing at camp that is special or unique, and does it have unique value? Put another way, if kids don’t experience something at camp, will they ever have another opportunity?

When the experience is a session playing Fortnite, an opportunity to use their phone during free time, or watching videos on YouTube, there are precious few campers attending summer camp in this day and age who would go without those experiences entirely if camp failed to provide them. But how many of our campers, absent a summer at camp, might have an opportunity to sit in a quiet wood and sketch a towering oak tree? Would they take the time to lie in a dark field with cabin mates and counselors, waiting for the brightest (or even first) shooting star of their lives? Would they learn a perfect j-stroke, guitar solo, or forehand toss of a Frisbee? Would they get to meet people from distant states, or countries, and get to know them better than any of their classmates at school? For many of our campers, the opportunity to go a day, a week, or several weeks without the intrusive, distracting, sleep-depriving, FOMO-inducing presence of a phone, console, or tablet is unique.

Camp has always been about creating a more ideal version of the world for our kids through personal experience. When it comes to technology, there is no point in pretending that kids may one day live in a world in which technology is not pervasive and ever present. There is, however, a strong case to make that we owe it to our campers and staff to allow them an opportunity to experience an alternative way of life, in which technology is not the primary consideration. We owe our campers a chance to live in a space where not only they, but every single person around them is well slept, is not preoccupied by the screen in their hand, is not deadened to the experiences of the world around them. We owe our campers an environment in which the adults in their orbit are present. We owe our campers a summer in a place where everything is done with intention and in anticipation of the beneficial outcomes. These are the things that summer camps have always excelled at. Persuasive, pervasive, and blithely accepted, technology adopted without deliberate intention poses a threat to these core aspects of the camp experience. Is it an existential threat? Probably not. Could it change the feel and function of summer camps and diminish the unique value of what we offer our campers? I would argue yes, and urge every camp to understand fully what they are giving up when they decide to bow to the inevitable, and schedule their first Fortnite inter-camp.

References

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. New York, NY: Penguin.

American Camp Association. (2018). Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/news-publications/news/press-release/aca-joins-partnership-21st-century-skills-p21-support-21st

Bowles, N. (2018a, October 26). A dark consensus about screens and kids begins to emerge in Silicon Valley. New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/phones-children-silicon-valley.html

Bowles, N. (2018b, October 26). The digital gap between rich and poor kids is not what we expected. New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/digital-divide-screens-schools.html

Bowles, N. (2018c, October 26). Silicon Valley nannies are phone police for kids. New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/silicon-valley-nannies.html

Christakis, E. (2018). The dangers of distracted parenting. The Atlantic. Retrieved from theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/the-dangers-of-distracted-parenting/561752/

De Tocqueville, A. (2003). Democracy in America. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

Dewey, J. (1997). How we think. Courier Corporation.

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York, NY: Basic Books.

James, C., Davis, K., Charmaraman, L., Konrath, S., Slovak, P., Weinstein, E., & Yarosh, L. (2017). Digital life and youth well-being, social connectedness, empathy, and narcissism. Pediatrics, 140(Suppl 2), S75. Retrieved from pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/140/Supplement_2/S71

Radesky, J. (2018). Digital media and symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adolescents. Jama, 320(3), 237–239.

Silberman, L. (2018, November). Video games at camp? Are you kidding me? Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/video-games-camp-are-you-kidding-me

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York, NY: Penguin.

Twenge, J. (2017, September). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic. Retrieved from theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

Weinstein, A., Livny, A., & Weizman, A. (2017). New developments in brain research of Internet and gaming disorder. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 75, 314–330.

Young, K. (2009). Understanding online gaming addiction and treatment issues for adolescents. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 37(5), 355–372.

Matt Pines co-owns and directs Maine Teen Camp alongside his wife Monique. They both have over two decades of camp experience working with teenagers. Matt is studying for a PhD in Public Policy & Education Leadership at the Muskie School of Public Policy at University of Southern Maine and believes that summer camps fill critical gaps in the modern education landscape.

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