Summer Camps Struggle To Enforce Bans On Screen Time

Aug 11, 2016
Originally published on August 12, 2016 3:27 am

Part of the experience of summer sleep-away camp is missing loved ones. And for many kids these days, that means longing for their beloved...cell phones.

Most camps ban them, including Cape Cod Sea Camps, in Brewster, Mass. On opening day, the long driveway into camp is lined with signs welcoming campers, and warning them, "Send your last Snapchat" and "Last chance to send a text!"

Campers say going cold turkey isn't easy. When 16-year-old Lily Hildreth first arrives, she says she would constantly "tap my pockets, and you're like, 'what am I missing?'"

15-year-old Jack Reilly says he actually got the shakes. Well... sort of. He says he felt phantom vibrations from his empty pocket for weeks. "I'd like think I got a text and I'd like look around in my pockets, like, 'Where's my phone? Like, oh wait, I don't have my phone. I'm at camp!'"

Resident camp director – and psychologist — Stephen Gray Wallace, who runs weekly sessions with the campers, has been helping counsel the campers through their withdrawal. Out on a field under a tree, he reassures the teens they're not alone.

"They say when you hear your text come in, or a buzz, it's addictive," he tells them.

Whether brain chemistry is actually at play, Wallace knows he's dealing with kids who find their phones irresistible. And he says camps like his have been tweaking their rules; trying to find the right balance for these gen–tech kids who never unplug.

At first, camp policy allowed phones only on trip days for emergencies. After a clamor from campers, Wallace says he relented and allowed kids to also text and call during trips, but social media were still banned. In retrospect, Wallace says, it was unrealistic to think kids could use their phones but resist the urge to check Facebook or Instagram and Snapchat.

"It got to the point where it was just unmanageable, we were literally sinking in this morass of disciplinary situations," he says.

So this year, the policy changed again. Now kids are allowed a social media fix on trips, but at camp they're back on the wagon. Many campers say it took them a week or two to detox, but ultimately they've surprised themselves.

"I haven't read a book in like five years, and I just recently started reading one," says 16-year-old Jonah Bachman. "I forgot how much I loved reading!"

Since quitting his phone habit, he says he's also more engaged with friends and the outdoors.

"Often times I'll sort of just find myself walking around, like enjoying, like you know going down to the ocean, just sort of being there," he says.

The wooded seaside camp grounds are a bucolic setting. The view over the bluffs to Cape Cod Bay, glistening in magic Cape light and dotted with sailboats, is such a picture-perfect scene it's little wonder that campers like 17-year-old Aggie Chamlin still fight the urge to snap and post it.

"I mean this view! You definitely want your friends to see it," says Chamlin. "I mean how could you not want to brag about this?"

But Chamlin has seen the light. Now six weeks sans selfies, she says she is actually able to be more herself. And she says being phone-free has also led her to make friends with kids who are not exactly in her comfort zone — kids she would never even talk to at home.

"I think a cell phone's a virtual wall that you put up for yourself," she says. "You're on your phone, and it's like you don't need to communicate with this person. You just don't have to. "

16-year-old Brooke Hackel agrees. What first felt onerous and restrictive, now feels liberating.

And it's completely cured her "FOMO," or "Fear Of Missing Out," that she feels when she scrolls through everyone else's smiling, laughing posts.

"I feel like social media stresses me out a lot," she says. "And so not being able to have [the phone] prevents it completely. There's nothing you can worry about, 'cause it's out of your hands."

Literally.

Some kids have come so far, that even when they get their phones back and are allowed to check social media, they don't.

"You have this slew of texts, and it's all just so minute," says Chamlin. "It just doesn't matter. My brain just isn't there."

But she says it 's been a bit of a different story trying to cut the cord to Mom and Dad.

"When things happen, like, oh this person isn't being nice to me, and all I want is to hear my mom's voice, or all I want is to text my mom and tell her, 'I'm out of snacks, and I need them now.' This is just so inconvenient," she says. "But it also forces you to like be innovative, I guess, and figure it out."

Sometimes, resident director Wallace says, the push-back actually comes from parents. "They want to be on the phone, they want to be involved, they want to be engineering an outcome," he says.

And yes, he has actually caught parents smuggling phones in.

Janet Shapiro, from a suburb of Boston, was one of those moms. "I have to laugh, yes. I say it with shame as well." She gave her son an old, dead phone as a decoy to hand in when he arrived, so he could secretly keep the working phone with him.

But, Shapiro says, she quickly learned her lesson the hard way.

"He was calling all the time! Too often!" she says. "I didn't want to hear from him!"

This year, she did not smuggle in a phone for him. But as kids tend to do when they're left to be independent at camp, he got resourceful, and figured out another way to get it done on his own.

Now, Shapiro is hoping he gets caught, so camp will confiscate the phone.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Part of the experience of summer sleepaway camp is missing loved ones. And for many kids, that includes their beloved cellphones. Most camps ban them. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, many campers and their parents are struggling to adjust.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: When campers pulled up the driveway to the Cape Cod Sea Camps on opening day, they were greeted by a series of signs welcoming them and warning them.

LILY HILDRETH: Send your last snap. Like, send your last text.

SMITH: Sixteen-year-old old Lily Hildreth (ph) says going cold turkey was not easy.

HILDRETH: When we first get here you, like, tap your pockets, and you're like, what am I missing? And it's, like, all of the time.

SMITH: Fifteen-year-old Jack Riley (ph) actually got the shakes sort of.

JACK RILEY: I'd, like, think I got a text. And I'd, like, look around in my pockets. Like, where's my phone? And, like, oh, wait; I don't have my phone. I'm at camp.

STEPHEN GRAY WALLACE: It's like vibrations that aren't there.

SMITH: Resident camp director and psychologist Stephen Gray Wallace stands in front of a circle of campers in their weekly meeting where he's often counseling them through their withdrawal.

WALLACE: They say when you hear your texts come in or your - a buzz, it's addictive (laughter).

SMITH: Scientists continue to study what brain chemistry might be at work to make social media seem so irresistible. But meantime, Wallace says camps like his have been tweaking their rules, trying to find the right balance for kids who never disconnect. First the rule was phones for emergencies only on trip days. Then texts and calls were allowed on trips. But Wallace says the lure of social media proved too strong.

WALLACE: It got to the point where it was just unmanageable. We were literally sinking, you know, in this morass of disciplinary situations.

SMITH: Now kids are allowed a social media fix on trips. But at camp, they're back on the wagon, and it only took them a couple of weeks before many campers started surprising themselves.

JONAH BACKMAN: I haven't read a book in, like, five years, and I just recently started reading one. I forgot how much I loved reading.

SMITH: Sixteen-year-old Jonah Backman (ph) says he's totally detoxed.

BACKMAN: Oftentimes I'll sort of just find myself walking around, like, enjoying, like, you know - going down to the ocean, just sort of being there.

SMITH: Looking over the bluffs at the Cape Cod Bay, it's such a picture-perfect scene. Kids still fight the urge to snap and post.

AGIE CHAMLIN: This - I mean, this view - you definitely want your friends to see it. I mean how could you not want to brag about this?

SMITH: But 17-year-old Agie Chamblin (ph) says when she's not worrying about selfies, she can actually be more herself. And she's made friends she otherwise wouldn't.

CHAMLIN: Well, I think a cellphone's a virtual wall that you put up for yourself. You're on your phone, and it's, like, you don't need to communicate with this person. You just don't have to.

SMITH: Sixteen-year-old Brooke Hackel (ph) agrees. What first felt restrictive now feels liberating, and it's completely cured her FOMO, or fear of missing out, that she gets from seeing everyone else's happy posts.

BROOKE HACKEL: I feel like social media stresses me out a lot, and so not being able to have it prevents it completely. There's nothing you can worry about because it's out of your hands.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #1: (Screaming) Jailbreak.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPER #2: Yeah.

SMITH: Walking past a dodgeball game, Chamlin says it's been hardest to cut the cord with her parents.

CHAMLIN: When things happen - like, oh this person isn't being nice to me. All I want is to hear my mom's voice. But it also forces you to, like, be innovative, I guess, and figure it out.

SMITH: Sometimes Camp Director Wallace says the pushback actually comes from parents.

WALLACE: They want to be on the phone. They want to be involved. They want to be engineering an outcome.

SMITH: He's actually caught parents smuggling phones in.

JANET SHAPIRO: I have to laugh, yes. I say it with shame as well (laughter).

SMITH: Janet Shapiro (ph) from a suburb of Boston was one of those moms, but she quickly learned her lessons.

SHAPIRO: He was calling all the time - too often. I didn't want to hear from him.

SMITH: This year, she did not smuggle in a phone, but turns out her son got resourceful and did it himself. Now she's hoping he gets caught. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.