Growing Up Digital, But Taking Summers Off.

Children at Vermont's Aloha Camps thrive on summer days unplugged from cell phones, ipods and computers.
Children at Vermont's Aloha Camps thrive on summer days unplugged from cell phones, iPods and computers.

Parents of today’s ‘tweens and teens consistently wrestle with the omnipresence of technology in their child’s life. As a force for both productivity and time-wasting, parents too struggle with increased dependence on smart phones, laptops, and MP3 players, simul-taneously attempting to set reasonable limits for their children. High school students, who log on to access homework and study guides posted by teachers on class websites, are quickly tempted to move on to Facebook, YouTube or other popular online sites instead of delving into classwork.  Even adults, raised without electronic distractions,  find them- selves struggling to set limits on their own web browsing at work when they find it competing with professional obligations.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Matt Richtel, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an expert on the effects of today’s technology on developing brains, reports on teens’ increasing inability to remain focused on a task in the face of persistent digital interruptions.  As one of the high school students acknowledges, “’I know I can read a book, but then I’m up and checking Facebook,’ he says, adding: ‘Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.’

He concludes: ‘My attention span is getting worse.’”

When campers arrive at Aloha, Hive and Lanakila on Opening Day, many insist on “one more text,” or “one more call” before surrendering their cell phone to parents, along with their MP3 players and other electronics. Some campers may initially lament the loss of devices, and yet, within hours, as an entire community begins to move at a slower, more connected pace, complaints diminish, and electronic communication is forgotten. Without the persistent interruption of text messages, Facebook updates, and even the more quaint notion of a phone call, children become more grounded and invested in their surroundings, relationships and activities. In addition, campers start to make decisions based on their inner voice and instincts, rather than soliciting feedback from a posse of friends, or even a parent at the other end of a text message.

Communications at Vermont's Aloha Camps for girls and boys are done the old-fashioned way.
Communications at the Aloha camps the old-fashioned way.

Each summer, the camp directors receive requests from a small, but surprisingly persistent, number of parents who request that their camper really needs a cell phone, “just in case.”  Nonetheless, the unplugged philosophy of the Aloha camps remains not only as firm as ever, but more important than ever, in the face of the onslaught of digital interruptions that plague today’s plugged-in kids.

Although the founders of Aloha, Hive and Lanakila could not have imagined the the gadgets and distractions available to the 21st century camper, their formula for camp happiness and success is still relevant over a century later. As the comments pile in to the New York Times website in response to the article, over 400 at the time of this writing, it is clear that parents and educators will continue to grapple over the use of technology in children’s lives.  For seven weeks in Fairlee, Vermont, we think we have the perfect solution.