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Campers enjoying a tranquil sunset with no screens in sight.

A few weeks ago, the CDC issued a report on the mental health of teenagers (especially girls) that was quite disturbing. Young people are experiencing much more anxiety, sadness, self-harm, and depression now than they were 10 years ago.

You may also be familiar with charts like this, which have begun to get more attention as the problem grows (source: Twenge 2020):

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The CDC report has led to a flood of articles and opinion pieces attempting to answer a simple question, “why?”

The answer is fairly clear: social media and reduced face-to-face interactions are making our kiddos less happy. If you are the type of person that likes to see the actual research, I highly recommend this long article by Jonathan Haidt that includes results from over 50 studies.

Given that this is a problem, what can we do about it?

Is it possible to have a world without phones and social media? I do not think so - that ship has sailed. Also, these tools have important practical purposes. Our goal should be to learn to live with our devices and help our children develop healthy relationships with them.

Think of our devices like food – we cannot live without them, but bad decisions can make us unhealthy. If we eat unhealthy food in large quantities, we will not do well. If we increase our leafy greens and decrease our Twizzlers, we will feel better.

Author Michael Pollan suggests a rule of thumb for eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Here is my suggestion for our devices: “Use phones. Not too much. Mostly to connect.” Let’s call this “good phone hygiene”.

My rule suggests that our kiddos should 1) reduce their phone usage but 2) when they use them, they should spend that time connecting with others rather than passively scrolling. Young people who use their phones to facilitate communication and connection (Facetime, group texts) seem to benefit from these tools. I suspect each of us has reconnected with loved ones that are far away through Zoom or WhatsApp. The most dangerous behavior is passive usage – constant scrolling through the lives of others that seem more attractive, popular, and successful than they are.

So how do we help our children develop good phone hygiene?

First, we probably need to do our best to model good phone hygiene ourselves.

Second, we need to help them have experiences where they can feel great and feel connected without using their phones.

Summer Camp Is Part Of The Solution

Summer camp is like the best possible detox program - a juice cleanse that is actually fun. Not only will your child come back healthier, he or she will have strengthened the habit of connecting in-person and diminished the dependence on digital scrolling.

Camp may be the only experience that young people will have where they will be completely phone free (heck, tech-free) for 2 weeks and actually thank you for it at the end.

I know of many parents who are delaying giving phones to your children. I applaud this effort, but eventually you will want them to become informed and wise users of this essential technology.

Camp will help your 10-year-old understand what tech-free, face-to-face connections feel like.

And your 12-year-old.

And your 15-year-old.

And your 17-year-old.

Each age presents different problems and requires different habits. Perhaps more importantly, each year developing good social media habits becomes more important, but harder for parents to enforce or influence.

A tech-free camp experience is a perfect place to address this challenge. At camp, they will learn:

  • How to have fun face-to-face. These are true skills that transfer when they return to home and school. They will be better at these skills than peers who are more reliant on their phones.
  • They will make friends at camp who they can keep in touch with. Remember the suggestion above that some phone use (like FaceTime, Zoom or group texts) can help people stay connected? Camp friends are great people to keep in contact with because the friendships are rooted in physical (not virtual) experiences.
  • As campers become more mature, we actively talk at camp about strategies that will help them when they get their phones and other devices back. Our teenage campers report that they spend less time than their peers “doom-scrolling” Instagram and TikTok. I do not have a scientific study to prove this, but it is a story I hear constantly every summer. Once your child learns how good they feel with real connections, they will strive to find ways to pursue them after camp.

Susie has another analogy that I like. Human connections (preferably face-to-face) are like Vitamin C. If we spend too much time on our devices, we don’t get enough Vitamin C and we develop scurvy. Camp is like a hyper-dose of Vitamin C, and acts for many campers like an annual innoculation against scurvy.

In a TED Talk I gave almost a decade ago, I suggested that the camp industry has spent the past 150 years becoming the perfect experience for today. I believe that now more than ever. Whether or not Camp Champions is the right fit as a specific camp, some kind of a multi-week overnight camp experience is almost certainly the right fit for the challenges our kids are facing today.

Of course, if you are reading this, you are probably already a camp parent. So I want to suggest that you share it with your camp-hesitant friends. Please also let them know that we would love to talk with them about the importance of raising children that are “tech-free and happy”.