Last Saturday I had the unique opportunity to hand 45 teens and pre-teens their phones after a (mostly) self-imposed break. I usually wait until right before they are scheduled to fly- in order to preserve the camp bubble for as long as possible, but the bus had arrived early, and we weren’t quite ready to get them lunch. I had used the same tactic as a parent for years and was not above using it again.
Some children accepted it eagerly while others were in no hurry to power up and re-enter their digital life beyond Camp, but the effect was universal. The group became quiet, stopped conversing with one another as they updated their status, checked in to see what they had missed (not much, in most cases) or phoned home to say that they were at the airport. The bubble had indeed burst.
But after a while I observed campers sharing their digital lives with one another, showing pictures of pets, parent and their home. They exchanged numbers, Instagram handles and vowed to keep in touch, and I have little doubt that they will.
It is likely that we have all seen it before- a group of teens gathered in one place, all with their heads in their phones and often conversing digitally with those just a few feet away. What I saw that morning was a bit of a hybrid. The phones were on and the heads were often down, but there was also an excited in-person sharing. Having just learned how to traverse a world without phones, I saw the kids trying to balance their Camp world and home world. It was a balance that I think we all probably strive for.
I often hear from parents that one of the biggest pluses from Camp is that their children have to step away from their phones, connect in person and take a break from a medium that can be all-too consuming. The irony that I spent much of the morning glued to my own phone- getting flight updates, directing staff to take campers to their gates or arranging last minute changes- was not lost on me, and I longed for my own digital detox.
The vast majority of our camp parents today came of age in a world without phones and place real value on providing an experience that allows campers to set them aside. The day will come, all too soon, that parents of Camp age children will have never known a world without smart phones, and I worry that they will not only not have the nostalgia for a simpler way of connecting, but also not see the benefit of doing so. There is no going back, I realize, and I am not sure I would want to. But going back, even if just for a few weeks, helps children put it all in a bit of context.
I recently saw a student quoted, asking his teacher why he had to study, since all the answers were now available to him on the internet. “Yes”, the teacher replied,” they are. But none of the questions are.” It is my hope that the Camp Mishawaka experience has helped these children form some of these questions and begin the search for some of the answers, even if they can’t find them online.