Can You Hear Me Now? Not if You’re at Summer Camp

There are few places where a person can truly get away from it all — cellular phones and smartphones keep us all connected whether we like it or not. But there may be at least one place where those 17 and under can escape from technology this summer: camp.

“Driving up the first time he was on his iPod Touch the whole time,” said Annie Perkins of her 12-year old son James, who spent two separate weeks at New Hampshire’s un-wired Camp Berea this summer.

“But on the second trip up, he didn’t even bring it in the car,” Perkins said. “That was a huge victory for me.”

Perkins said her son’s disconnect from technology was so important that she would pay substantially more — up to 50% on the price of his tuition — for a tech-restricted camping experience.

“I’m not sending him to camp for the sake of babysitting,” Perkins said. “He can be at home with me and play with technology. Tech creates the environment where he’s thinking about the next thing, the next thing, or how many things can I do at once. I want him to live in the moment.”

Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, said Perkins is not alone in her desire to have a child who can live without a phone or MP3 player for a few days.

“Basically summer camp is still considered by and large an unplugged environment,” said Smith. “Parents are looking for a balance. Kids are spending between 8 and 18 hours in some sort of solitary media environment, so parents view time away from that as precious.”

Most camps — around 70% as of 2007 — do not allow campers to use technology while in residence, according to the American Camp Association. Smith said that while some parents might pay more for their kids to have a complete “unplugged” experience, technology alone will not sway pricing one way or another.

“While some parents may want their kids at a nature camp, it’s not necessarily going to be cheaper or more expensive because of their policy on technology. Parents have to look at a broad range of the type, purpose and cost of any camp before they make a decision,” Smith said.

But the camper’s desire to use technology is just one side of the coin, according to Smith.  Today’s parents anticipate they will hear from their children more often because of the ease of technology, and are more likely to get “kidsick” than their children are to get homesick because of the increased involvement in their children’s lives.

With websites and e-mail communication creating additional responsibilities for camps nationwide, some camps have been forced to take on additional staff to handle electronic communication.

“I think every camp in America is struggling with this, because we want to meet everyone’s needs,” said Neal Waldman, owner of Forest Acres and Indian Acres summer camps in Fryeburg, Maine.

Waldman has hired an additional staff member — a “communications director” — to keep up with the changes in technology and parents’ increased desire to hear from their children sooner than a snail-mailed letter will allow.

Waldman’s campers can write a hand-penned letter home to mom and dad, and then the communications director will scan the letter onto a computer and e-mail a virtual copy of it to the parents. Of course, not every kid chooses to speed things up; 70% of Waldman’s campers still send letters home, while 30% choose to have it scanned in for e-mail distribution.

“Our families have been very supportive of us because they understand what our goals are, and that we are about community building,” Waldman said. “Campers have to write home to mom and dad, we are just speeding up the time it takes them to get it. It’s the putting it down on paper and coalescing of thoughts that’s important.”

Tuition at Forest Acres and Indian Acres costs $9,000 for the full seven-week season, and Waldman said he doesn’t know of any camps that charge more for the restriction of technology. But Bobbi DePorter, owner of SuperCamp, a 7- to 10-day academic-focused camp for children on college campuses nationwide, said she thinks parents would be willing to pay more for assured restriction to technology.

“Parents know how crucial it is for their kids to connect with something other than an electronic device, and I think that has value,” said DePorter, who allows campers access to their cellular phones and e-mail twice a day — once in the morning, and once in the evenings after dinner.

“When kids check in with us, we collect all their iPods, phones, Blackberries, everything.  I remember one girl had her hand on her cell, and she was shaking as she passed it over. The staff had to physically take it from her.”

DePorter said it’s the kids who find it hardest to give up their technology who usually end up getting the most from the camping experience, and added that most camps would probably allow at least some access to technology in the future.

But there will likely always be a few hold outs, according to Peg Smith

“Years ago people would have said we’d have a phone in every bunk. But we don’t, and we’re not going to have WiFi in them in 10 years, either," Smith said. "Kids’ developmental needs haven’t changed drastically in the last 100 years, it’s the technology that’s changing.”