Summers Unplugged in NHApril 17, 2014
I will be leaving for a vacation in just a couple of days, and one of things that I am most looking forward to is seeing my entire family unplug. We will be staying in a remote location where there is no cell reception, no internet, no Xbox, and no TV. As a rule we put down our many mobile devices for more than a week, and it is absolutely glorious. At first it’s a little awkward, and I have to fight my impulse to grab my beloved iphone and use one of its apps, but fairly quickly my brain recalls the decades of my life when I didn’t always have a device at my side. My kids are suddenly required to fill their free time with something other than Temple Run and Minecraft, and my wife and I refrain from checking our work emails, or posting on Facebook or Instagram. To put it mildly, it’s heaven. Over the 8 days of vacation we reconnect with each other on a much deeper level than we do at any other point of the year.
As a society we have not yet fully weighed the net impact of our obsession with our mobile devices. Neurologists and social scientists still have a lot of unanswered questions about how our iculture is reshaping our society and our brains. Should young children have unfettered access to these incredible gadgets? Do iphones and ipads change the way our brains process information, and in particular, with emotions? Is the ubiquitous use of mobile devices in public spaces — including schools, restaurants or even public bathrooms – creating important (and maybe not benign) shifts in how we relate to each other as human beings? The answers are unclear, though there certainly is a growing body of evidence to suggest that prolonged exposure to these devices during childhood may cause irreparable harm to growing brains.
Earlier in the week I heard this interesting piece on NPR’s “All Tech Considered”. The reporter spent an evening in an upscale restaurant in Washington, DC., and she watched how even the way we interact with one another while eating has changed. People at the same table refrain from speaking with each other, in favor of calling or texting someone else. Parents hand a device to a bored child as a form of entertainment, rather than engaging in a conversation. Patrons reconfigure their table in the hopes of taking the perfect Instagram image of their meal (regretfully, I must admit that I have done all three of these things). It made me think about how excited I am for my family’s upcoming unplugged vacation, but also how eagerly I await the start of another season at our summer camp in NH.
At Camps Kenwood and Evergreen we strive for summers unplugged. We ask that our campers leave their iphones and other mobile devices behind for an entire 7 weeks! We also ask our counselors to store their cell phones during the daytime in private lockers, so that they aren’t being used around campers. Other than when they are playing music, our cabins are totally ifree. And just like my family trip, the difference is both noticeable and spectacular.
Campers suddenly rediscover (or in some cases, learn for the first time) how wonderful a summer unplugged can be. During free time they play catch, or ping pong, or tetherball, or even board games. They sit outside and draw or paint, or just hang out with friends and gab. They roll around in the grass or grab friends to go search in a stream for tadpoles. They argue less and compromise more. It typically takes campers about 12 hours to fully forget about the devices that they left behind at home, and we rarely if ever hear about someone missing them during the course of our 7-week summer experience. The net effect of their summers without electronic devices is that our children seem more engaged in their actual experiences, and more socially connected with one another. It’s simply incredible to observe!
Again, I’m a big fan of technology and certainly enjoy using it in my daily life. But as a camp director and a parent I’m also aware that these magical devices may have some lasting, negative effects on our culture, particularly if we are unable to carve out places and spaces when we can agree to put them down. What we see anecdotally during our unplugged summers at Camps Kenwood and Evergreen in NH certainly leads us to believe regular time away from mobile devices has an incredibly positive effect on the social and emotional health of young people.
I’m curious what other parents feel about this, especially those in our community. Do you agree that it’s a positive for our Kenwood and Evergreen campers to leave their iphones at home during the summer? Do you see any changes in their behaviors when they return home that you attribute to their technology vacation? Do you have concerns about how much time your children spend on their idevices during the rest of the year? I’d really love to know your thoughts on this.