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At Camp Champions, we believe that giving your child a tech-free experience over the summer is one of the most important and powerful things you can do to promote healthy childhood.

Here is how we have come to understand the “phone challenge” of modern parenting:

  1. It’s no longer a question that social media is harmful to our children.
  2. This puts parents in a difficult position.
  3. Summer camp can empower healthy phone use, rather than making phone restrictions feel like punishment.

Social Media is Harmful To Our Children

Every parent we know shares the following two concerns:

  • They worry that social media is harmful to their kiddos
  • They worry about how to protect them from apps that seem to be everywhere.

These concerns are well placed, as it is no longer a question that social media is harmful to our children.

Researchers (and internal documents from many tech companies) are confirming many of our worst fears about social media. Since app-based phones and social media really took off in 2012, there have been meaningful increases in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and even suicide. These effects are seen across all Western countries, so cannot be attributed to anything happening specifically in the United States.

Put simply, social media does more to make our children unhappy than happy. The reasons this is happening are less clear, but they include a long list:

  • Unfavorable comparisons that make them feel inadequate or unattractive.
  • Fear of missing out. Social media makes young people aware of events that their peers are doing that they are excluded from.
  • Outraged-fueled algorithms. Over time, these platforms have determined that outrage motivates more than joy. A long session of “doom-scrolling” on Instagram, TikTok or YourTube leads to negative mental states.
  • Screen time reduces sleep. Sleep deprivation is known to have terrible outcomes for mental and physical health, and screen time is replacing time spent sleeping.
  • Screen time replaces in-person time (and exercise). Personal interactions and exercise are both critical to mental health, but as screen time rises our children are spending less time with friends and less time outside.

This Puts Parents In A Difficult Position

With this information, what is a parent to do?

It’s our job to protect our kids from harm. But most of the ideas for how to do this with respect to smartphones and social media (delaying smartphone use until a certain age, restricting app access, restricting phone use to certain times or amounts of time) put us into conflict with our children. We are taking from them something that they want.

This often activates their inner rebel. Of course, good parents know that they need to say “no” to many things, but this area is especially fraught because the battle is constant. We get worn down and our children end up using their phones and social media more than is good for them.

However, there is good news. As a camp parent, you have done something that most people will never do – you gave your children a fun and positive experience with no screens at all.

Nada. Zilch.

At the very ages when the apps and devices start to affect our children (generally 10-12 and up), you showed your children that they can not only survive, but thrive without their devices. Unlike their friends, they know what a 100% face-to-face friendship feels like, they know the joys of playing in nature, they understand how to be comfortable without needing to look at a screen, they can be loved and accepted without constant comparison to influencers.

Camp is not a full inoculation against the perils of social media, but we like to think of it as a powerful booster shot.

In the mid 2010’s, most campers hated giving up their phones. Nowadays, most teens that we hear from have a different view, “I am so happy I am at camp and can ignore my phone . . . I want to find more ways to be this way at home.” There is a palpable sense of relief when they describe the phone free experience. Many of our older groups spend time talking about ways to control their “phone diets”.

This is encouraging for two reasons. First, it originates with the child, not the parent. Second, they know that it is possible to be “tech free and happy”. This knowledge will not lead them to going off the grid, but it empowers them with evidence that they can have control over their devices.

Camp Can Make Good Phone Habits Feel Like Power, Not Punishment

Spending a few weeks at camp without being tethered to devices is a truly wonderful opportunity for kids today.

As a parent, you can use the hours and days after camp to ask your camper(s) about camp in a ways that will reinforce the positive lessons of being “tech free and happy”:

  • Who were your friends and what did you enjoy most with them?
  • What were your favorite activities?
  • Who were your favorite counselors?
  • I’m jealous, I sometimes feel like my phone owns me and not the other way around. Do you have any recommendations for me that could help me be more like you were the past two (three) weeks?
  • Do you have any of your friends here at home who think that they could never survive without their phones? If so, do you think you might be able to show them that they can have fun without them?
  • [For older campers, like teens] You are a leader. I wonder what it would be like if you encouraged your friends to have tech-free meals or tech-free hangout times. Do you think that would be fun to bring some of the “camp magic” home to them?

Of course, these are just sample questions, but here is the key element: you want them to think about what they experienced and suggest that they have a power and knowledge that few teens (young people) will ever have – the ability to thrive without constant phone interaction.

Once your children think of “phone hygiene” as power and not punishment, they are on the road to finding their own strategies.

Our hope is that camp is an annual reminder that our campers can be “tech free and happy”. After all, every important skill is built through regular practice.

Erec Sir and Steve Sir