NPR’s All Things Considered’s piece “Summer Camps Struggle to Enforce Bans on Screen Time” missed an opportunity to explore the ways that some camps have successfully remained technology-free during this time when our children face so many technology-induced challenges. Clearly camps and schools face challenges when children seem to need to detox from technology, and like in schools, it is tempting to soften this process through support groups and allowing periodic access to social media. But we believe that summer camps are places where children learn—sadly for the first time in some cases—that our relationships to ourselves, our communities and to the world are vastly improved when we experience things in the present, and not through a smartphone. But coping with technology overload through limited access to adress the Fear Of Missing Out should not be the paradigm shift we strive for; summer camps must try to do better!
Our current culture of constant access to (or need for) social media and technology is the paradigm shift our children are facing. Bowing to those pressures by permitting technology to play a role (albeit slightly limited) during the precious summer months is allowing media to infect one of the last technology-safe environments that children have in our world—the beautiful outdoors experienced so intimately at summer camps and outdoor programs. We can do better!
As a child clinical psychologist who left the world of mental health to run The Aloha Foundation, a non-profit organization that operates 6 summer camps and outdoor education programs, I would encourage any organization that works with children—and particularly summer camps that have more control over the entire child’s world—to step back from the precipice and help children return to their truly natural state—a state of direct social connection and empathy—by building interpersonal relationships that are not mediated by phones and media at all.
We do not need to fight the intrusion of technology in the minds and lives of children through capitulation. We need to demonstrate—in thought and action—that authentic connections with each other and our natural world is an essential aspect of healthy child development that must be protected and fostered at every opportunity. When summer camps permit children unrestricted access to technology and media, or even when they allow them to discharge pent-up steam through periodic or temporary access, we reinforce the addiction and miss an opportunity to help them learn to court stillness of thought and mind, presence in the moment, and resiliency in response to stress.
In their publication, There’s a reason they call it the great outdoors, the National Wildlife Federation reminds us why access to the natural world is so crucial for child development, and something that is restricted by access to screens. Schools that provide children with opportunities to explore the outdoors or offer environmentally-based programming see improvements on standardized test scores in math, reading, writing and listening as well as improvements in critical thinking skills. Children’s stress level is reduced in the outdoors whereas the normally hurried lifestyle common in our culture today is associated with the development of anxiety and depression. Perhaps more important, nature makes us more sociable and contributes to healthy communities. The average child in the United States spends less than 30 minutes outside in unstructured play and as much as 7 hours in front of media screens.
Summer camps need not capitulate to children’s perceived need for constant access to social media. We need to continue to assert the role we play in children’s development and help children (and their parents) remember that expansive and unstructured play in the outdoors, and relationships free from the distractions of media are crucial to healthy child development.
Christopher E. Overtree, Ph.D. is a child clinical psychologist and the Executive Director of The Aloha Foundation, which operates Camps Lanakila, Aloha, Aloha Hive, Ohana and Horizons as well as the Hulbert Outdoor Center, all in Vermont. Aloha programs have been in operation since 1905, and have a long term commitment to creating programs where participants can learn to be their best selves in a simple, technology-free, community. For more information about Aloha programs, visit www.alohafoundation.org
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