Camp Fills the Need: Part 1, Screen Time Impacts

Powerpoint slide by Dave Malter.

Editor’s Note: All this week Camp Alleghany for Girls Director Elizabeth Shreckhise is writing a blog series called Camp Fills the Need. It’s a series that addresses the huge impacts that screens are making on our kids, our families, ourselves, and how camp provides an antidote to the pervasiveness of screens in our world. Today she’s writing about some of the research out there that helps us understand what so many screens are doing to our bodies and minds. Then she’ll share how she, too, has to deal with this in her own family and what little tricks she uses to tamp down screen times at home. And then finally, she’ll talk about how nature-based sleepaway summer camps provide an antidote to the omnipresence of screens not just as a digital detox, but in their own right — in relationship to nature, relationships, physicality, emotions, spirit, and sensations. So please tune in this week and follow along as we explore these important issues. We welcome feedback in e-mail or in the comments section of the blog.

This fall I attended a one-day American Camp Association (ACA) gathering of camp professionals from around Virginia and West Virginia. It’s an annual gathering of what’s called “The Virginias” in the ACA and this one was titled, “Fall Leadership Training Day.” It was designed to be another practical and informative way for camp pros to hear some of the latest research and insights in our industry, ask questions, explore ideas, and bounce ideas off of each other.

I found it very helpful!

The morning was spent mostly sharing ups and downs from the summer, and asking questions to the group —

  • What worked, what didn’t?
  • How did you handle X at camp this summer?
  • What do you do if Y happens?

That kind of mutual down-processing really helps camp professionals in terms of seeing how others do things, weighing it against our own traditions and style, and then seeing how we might grow as a camp, or incorporate new approaches to the ongoing changes in the world that affect kids, parents, and our program offerings.

Lost Connections Restored

Powerpoint slide by Dave Malter.

But the even more powerful part of the day came after lunch when Professor Dave Malter, Director of the Touro University Masters in Camp Administration and Leadership Program, provided a talk about the lost connection between people due to the expansion of TV screens into every facet of life (think restaurants, waiting rooms, lobbies) and the intrusion of computer-based screens into every facet of life (think 24-7 “smart” phones, classroom life, check-in stations, video games, and more).

Please let me tell you how very, very good this talk was!

Malter called it “The Power of Connection,” a simple title that held so much.

In one way the talk wasn’t anything earth shattering that I hadn’t heard before, or found myself troubled by as a person of this time, as a mom, and as a camp director. But it offered more research — not just anecdotes or our own feelings/reactions to this time —  about the grave dangers of screen time. Malter explored what pervasive screen presences and screen time is doing to our individual and collective mental health, and how — of course! — camps are an antidote to an unbalanced screen-based paradigm.

He talked a little about a book called Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by author Johann Hari.

In some circles it’s a controversial book, and surely not all the ideas presented in it will apply to my interest — in running a top notch camp that helps kids in the world today have a well-rounded educational experience. But I look forward to reading it to explore those portions that will apply to my purposes, namely how we need true human relationships that are NOT mediated by media and media tools like smart phones, social media, and a computer life.

A big part of Malter’s talk touched on just that — human relationships. Malter talked about friendship, how friendships are formed, and just how special and even “magical” young people find meaningful friendships to be.

But how do kids get there? How do any of us get there?

Friendship, friendship, just the perfect blendship…

In order to truly connect and become friends with someone, Malter argues that the research shows you need 200 hours of immersive time together to really get there. And interestingly, school, which is focused on tasks and assignments and strict time management and interaction, doesn’t really provide the room for this. Even sports, with its competitive focus, achievement-oriented outcomes, and social-management, don’t really provide this context (though they do have some downtime where those connections can be nurtured).

Really, says Malter, it’s living together that most nurtures friendships! Time spent in the ordinary, in the every day, just going about the business of living — meals, dressing, doing chores, hanging out — helps grow and cement friendships. This is why family time is so important!

And joint activities help kids (help all people) to reach that “point” in interaction where social interaction is so seamless that friendship begins to grow and blossom!  This doesn’t happen instantaneously. Most friendships take shape in 3-9 weeks in a context where having fun together and enjoying each other’s company are essential.

Interestingly, many if not most camps have focused their marketing materials away from “camp is fun!” to the fact that camp helps build 21st century skills. But Malter argues that, even if such skills are developed at camp, we should be careful about this! Why? Because it plays into parents’ fears that every moment of a child’s life is all about gaining more skills, being more competitive, filling out that over-padded resume for college, internships, or jobs.

Instead we have to remember that an essential part of human life is simply connecting meaningfully with others, nurturing human relationships that mutually affirm one another and celebrate our common and complimentary interests, bonds, and personalities. Some of our time needs to be purely social and purely by choice — who do we get along with, what do we like about being together, how do we grow in our relationships?

And if people — and young, developing kids — are getting less and less of this in school, at home, and personally because everywhere a screen intervenes to define the moment, then we’ve got a crisis on our hands that needs a different approach.

Camp is a different approach. But so is just being mindful that this is happening at all. How do we do this when screens are everywhere, all the time?

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch

Tomorrow I’ll write about how even my young kids — all under age 8 — are facing this and what I’m trying to do on the home front to confront and reshape these challenges. Then after that I’ll loop back to camp, and how camp is an essential part of a child’s whole education because camp is not about screen time. It’s not about screen time at all. But more than that, it’s about something unique to itself that we have to treasure, nurture, and protect. It’s about people, about relationships, about friendships, and about becoming a whole and balanced person.

Tune in and let’s go deeper with this.

— Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls