CAMP UNPLUGGED


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Electronic technology has done a lot to make life more convenient. But the seductiveness of new technology probably contributes to most Americans' working longer than 40 hours per week. For many people, checking e-mail outside of work hours is habitual. This summer, I regularly saw parents "on vacation" at the beach checking their e-mail on handheld devices while their children splashed in the ocean. Sure, these gadgets are convenient, but they easily blur the lines between work, play, and family time. Electronic technologies also provide a mixed bag?sorry, stream?of media. Television programs, DVD movies, Internet sites, and video games are entertaining, often educational. On the other hand, unsavory content and time absorption are the two most frequently cited problems associated with these media. Research last year by the Kaiser Foundation concluded that young people between 8 and 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours a day absorbed in media. Most of it is electronic, and much of the time is solitary. Can there be any way out of the technology trap? Indeed. All it requires is thoughtful application of intentionally selected technologies. Electronic technologies are particularly welcome when they save us time, nourish our relationships, teach us something, or amuse us in healthy, wholesome ways. These days, every camp uses electronic technology of some sort, from telephones to toasters. Even the most rustic and isolated camps use electronic technologies for safety (e.g., GPS units, walkie-talkies, satellite phones) or publicity (e.g., web pages). Evaluating a camp's appropriate use of technology no longer involves questioning whether it uses new technology, but how.


Famil-E-Values
Every family has different values and a different history with technology. For some, what camp offers is welcome relief from the burdensome yoke of electronic technologies. For other families, camp might offer tools that truly enhance interpersonal connections. As you consider each point, ask yourself what makes the most sense for your circumstances, your own family's values and history and your child's development. Telephones. Some camps have a "no phone/no call" policy because they recognize that telephone calls exacerbate homesickness and erode children's independence. Although parents and camp directors may have phone contact, campers are not typically permitted to make or receive calls. (Exceptions are made for family emergencies, of course.) Some seven- or eight-week camps allow scheduled weekly phone calls. Again, this policy reflects the belief that phone contact is not a treatment for homesickness, nor should it interfere with the growth in self-reliance most camps seek to promote. Email. Many camps allow parents to send e-mails to their children, which are sorted and distributed with the regular mail. Unlike a phone call, children and parents don't hear the sound of each others' voices. As tender as real voices are in other contexts, such immediate contact while children are at camp reliably flares campers' homesickness (and parents' "kid-sickness"). Facsimile. Some camps are using faxes to send campers' handwritten letters to their eager parents. Potentially, a parent could send an email to their child in the morning and receive a faxed reply in the afternoon. Potentially, this also creates an unnecessary burden for parents, children and camp staff. Photographs. Since the 1920s, some camps have published photographic yearbooks. Of course, families had to wait until Thanksgiving to receive a copy. The advantage of such a long wait was that it forced children to recreate a verbal narrative of the experience. Today, such narratives may be bypassed because camps are posting hundreds of digital photographs a day on their websites. Parents at home or at work can instantly view, purchase and download photos of their child at camp. Of course, this can also create undue anxiety when your child is not photographed on a certain day, or appears not to be smiling in a certain snapshot. Video Streaming. Some camps see this as the ultimate way to give parents a window into their child's world, but others see it as the ultimate way to rob children of an experience all their own. Even more so than the provision of photographs, this medium may create more anxiety than it was designed to quell and encourage children to bypass a truly interactive, personal narrative with their parents. Why write during camp or talk after camp when Mom and Dad already saw it all on their laptop?
Run the Diagnostics
In your search for the camp that best matches your child's interests and abilities, consider that the thoughtful application of electronic technology requires two things. First, it must meet one or more of the criteria of efficiency, connection, education, and wholesome entertainment without eroding any of the other criteria. Second, it must be in accord with the camp's stated mission. If a camp hasn't applied technology thoughtfully, consider other camps that have. Any camp that passes these diagnostic tests must now pass two tough parent tests: first, does the camp's application of technology match your value system? For example, the camp may provide live streaming video, thus providing a kind of connection and entertainment for parents. But does this match your value system, which may include affording your child an opportunity to independently explore a new place and new relationships? Are you comfortable that someone could hack past the camp's website password and view camp activities, or does that threaten your sense of safety and privacy? If the camp's technology passes your values test, the second test is this: Does the camp's application of technology give you an opportunity to take a break from full-time parenthood? As much as parents and children might miss one another, both say their relationship is stronger when they've had some time apart. However, if the camp's use of technology makes more work for you, it diminishes one of the benefits of time apart: respite for you.
Worth the Wait
Remember that camp is not the stock market or a breaking news story. It's community living, away from home, in a natural, recreational setting. Nothing needs to be transmitted at the speed of light. Plus, children are exposed to electronic technology all year. It's nice for them to have a break during the summer. It's also healthy for children and parents to talk with each other about their experiences after spending some planned time apart. Technologies should not crowd out the necessary psychological space for dialogue. The artificial needs created by new electronic technologies?to see and hear everything the instant it happens?are not always developmentally appropriate needs for our children. To wait a few days for a traditional letter to arrive, for example, gives parents and children alike the time to reflect, form new relationships, solve problems independently and understand their emotions. In these ways, unplugging the digital umbilical cord promotes healthy growth and self-reliance. -- Christopher A. Thurber, PhD, a board-certified clinical psychologist, is co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook. This article was originally printed in CAMP Magazine and reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association 2006 American Camping Association, Inc. Appeared in West Side Spirit in November 2008.

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