Survival tips: The benefits of going phone-free at camp

Melissa Erickson
This article appears in Summer Camp magazine 2018.

Kids today are super-connected, so it can be a surprise or even a shock to learn that most summer camps follow a no-phone policy. Both parents and kids may push back at the idea of losing connection while at camp, but the experts say kids benefit from time away from their phones.

“Camp is one of very few places today where kids have the opportunity to truly unplug. Unplugging allows this generation to create strong authentic connections with others,” said Dayna Hardin, president of CampGroup and owner/director of Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods camps in Michigan. “In the end that is perhaps why campers say their camp friends are their best friends, or ‘my camp friends know me better than anyone else at home.’ It’s really no surprise — real friends are more meaningful than digital friends.”

Losing the immediate connection to a parent that a phone provides allows kids to grow and problem-solve on their own.

“By removing what is often 24/7 communication between parents and their children, campers really do learn how to navigate and work through normal challenges,” Hardin said. “When we allow children to navigate on their own, in a safe environment, they learn coping skills and become more resilient.”

Unplug and be a kid

“Many children today are scrolling through life instead of living it,” Hardin said. “We know that over-engagement with social media can cause anxiety and feelings of low self-esteem. There are many studies, including one from Stanford, showing that being in nature yields measurable mental health benefits and may reduce risk of depression.”

At home and plugged in, many kids suffer from FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” but not at camp, Hardin said.

“Imagine the feeling of seeing all of your friends at a sleepover that you were not invited to on Snapchat. How would you feel? The fear of missing out creates a lot of anxiety,” she said.

Who needs it more

Before camp begins, both parents and kids are fairly anxious about the no-phone policy, Hardin said. Once camp starts, kids “actually feel relieved. They do not feel any pressure reply to a message or constantly check Snapchat or Instagram to see what they are missing,” Hardin said.

Parents have a harder time giving up instant access to their kids, and that can create anxiety, she said. Good camps have communication plans in place (daily photo galleries, weekly videos on social media, newsletters and phone calls or email chats) so parents can feel connected and “see” what their kids are up to while they are away, Hardin said.

Breaking the rules

“Most of us camp directors know all the cellphone tricks,” Hardin said. “Yes, some kids will try to hide their phones. Some kids bring a decoy phone to camp, meaning they turn one in, but have another one. Parents are the ones promoting this. We tell our parents if we have a rule, we are going to enforce it. If your child has a phone at camp, you are doing them a disservice and we will take it away.”

The pushback on the no-phone policy has eased in recent years as parents have become more concerned with screen addiction, Hardin said.