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Summer Camp's Digital Cleanse

The nation’s summer camps, which not so long ago primarily served as a fun-filled vacation for kids, have today taken on a far more urgent role: giving kids a digital cleanse from the screens otherwise consuming their lives.

As perhaps the last true oasis of digital-free existence for young minds otherwise glued to blue screens and the content behind them, summer camps have become critically important for reintroducing kids to the natural world, face-to-face communication and the friendships that come with it, and to the genuine fun that comes from 24/7 immersion an Internet-dominated world.

There’s no Wifi in the forest, but I promise you’ll make a better connection.

All of which helps explain why, in recent years, summer camps have been referred to as a kind of detox for young minds and bodies otherwise addicted to their digital gadgetry. Still a fun-filled break from mom and dad, yes, but an even more important separation from smartphones and video games, social media and messaging.

Why Kids Need a Digital Detox

Just how important is even a one-week, summer camp-inspired break from digital tech?

As most parents know, it’s getting scary out there. Today, not only do 95% of teens own a smartphone, half claim to be on them “almost constantly.” Kids of all ages spend roughly eight hours a day in front of a screen, even as studies continue to emerge showing all that screen time is leading to depression, anxiety, the destruction of interpersonal relationships, and slower brain development.

In China, the government is creating a national facial recognition database to curb kids’ access to games, and for some experts it’s not a stretch to imagine that approach being adopted here one day.

So yeah, we think the ol’ summer camp digital detox is very, very important.

summer camp digital detox
Summer camp replaces selfies with actual doing

Childhood is, of course, a time of enormous mental and physical development. But because digital tech is consuming a larger and larger share of childhood, it’s wielding a disproportionate influence on those young minds and bodies – digital tech literally is rewiring our kids. And in the process, it’s robbing kids of:

  • The creative freedoms and impulses that once guided and molded young lives, particularly during the ‘dog days of summer’ when kids had endless hours to fill. The question asked then – ‘What are we gonna do today?’ – has been replaced by countless hours of largely mindless and passive consumption of digital content.
  • The all-important life skill of learning to make and hold eye contact, read body language, and thereby establish meaningful relationships.
  • A recognition of, and comfort in, the great outdoors, be it hiking in the woods, swimming/canoeing on a lake, riding a horse, etc.
  • The evolution of independence from parents (since mom and dad are always just a text or phone call away)
  • Discovering the immense value and reward of working as a team to capture a flag, win a race, brainstorm a solution.

Are we overstating the problem? We don’t think so.

Camp is like a vitamin supplement of the vital things our kids’ lives are missing.

Frankly, if digital tech wasn’t a threat to young minds, why are their creators committed to limiting their own kids’ access to them, sending their kids to tech-free schools, and coming out after the fact with apologies for creating the mess in the first place?

All of which still leaves us, the masses, to find useful ways of teaching our kids the benefits of an occasionally digital-free existence.

Enter, the summer camp.

How Summer Camp Reconnects Kids

There’s a quote that’s been making the rounds of the Internet for some time now, author unknown, that goes like this: “There’s no Wifi in the forest, but I promise you’ll make a better connection.”

That pretty well sums up the beauty of a digital-free summer camp – it reconnects kids with, well, just about everything: other kids, Mother Nature, their own sense of imagination and curiosity, their desire to DO and accomplish rather than merely consume.

digital detox
Summer camp still gives kids a chance to break away from mom and dad, but from digital tech as well.

Summer camp, says Andy Pritikin, owner and director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Mansfield Township, NJ, “is like a vitamin supplement of the vital things our kids’ lives are missing: face-to-face interactions, collaborating together in groups, and navigating the ups and downs of relationships.”

In a 2016 NPR report, Tovia Smith interviewed young campers attending digital-free Cape Code Sea Camps. At the outset, kids told Smith they experienced a kind of phantom smartphone pain, a sense that their phone was vibrating even though it wasn’t there. Others spoke of incessantly patting a back pocket for the familiar feel of the phone; one child even described getting the shakes.

Yet within a few days, the young campers settled into a tech-free routine, complete with idle walks in nature, conversations with kids outside their normal comfort zone, reading a good book, and engaging in a variety of fun individual and team activities.

Camp also helped numerous kids step out from beneath the often crushing expectations of maintaining social media profiles. Gone was the incessant need to snap and share selfies, replaced by the simple acting of doing.

By the end of camp, Pritikin says campers “cry tears of joy as they hug their friends and counselors.” And perhaps a few of those tears are at the prospect of returning to the virtual world?


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