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How much technology can your camp tolerate?

Posted on March 10, 2014 by Julie Hartley

At the recent Ontario Camps Association conference, an interesting discussion followed a presentation on technology and cell phones at camp. One traditional camp advocated for a zero tolerance policy on all technology at camp. The point (well taken) was that young people today live in such a wired world that it is essential to their personal and social growth that they learn to exist for a few weeks without any access to laptops, iPads, phones and – most importantly – social media.

The presenter agreed wholeheartedly with this. She pointed out that technology rules our lives. It invades our personal and recreational time, so that there is a higher prevalence of anxiety in young people than ever before. Many of us have begun to forget what we did with all the free time we had, prior to this onslaught. Remember? We talked with friends, played with our kids more, noticed what was going on around us, and actually made eye contact across the dining room table. The onslaught of technology has also contributed to the helicopter parent syndrome. Parents have become a crutch for their children because they are virtually present all the time. Children are growing up without the ability to solve small problems for themselves. This has an enormous impact on all camps. The presenter ended by saying that parents today are less willing to allow their kids to struggle and grow through experiences that may initially be tough; they have forgotten that it is sometimes the difficult circumstances in the young lives of our children that shape them in the most positive ways.

Our camp agrees with everything the presenter was saying… but not necessarily that a zero tolerance policy for technology is the solution… at least not for us. Firstly, we are not a wilderness camp. We run programs that depend upon technology. Our dance instructors keep their music on their smart phones. Sometimes, a counselor has their entire summer’s workshop plans and resources on a laptop they bring to camp. In Creative Writing, our campers sometimes prefer to write on their laptops and the instructor uses a laptop to collate their writing pieces into a ‘Zine’, or online writing publication. In Photography, campers often bring their own computer and software to manipulate their photographs. When technology so often contributes positively to the arts programming we offer, it would be hard to tell a camper they cannot use their smart phone to record a song they write, take artistic photos around camp, or share music in the dorm.

However, we absolutely agree that phone and web access should be limited at camp. It is simply true that if a camper was able to access friends and family at the press of a button, they would invest less effort in making camp friends, and find themselves constantly drawn, instead, into ongoing peer issues back home. If they had constant access to their smart phones, I can imagine some of our campers feeling obliged to post constantly on Instagram, and never fully interacting with camp friends. Our staff is trained to help a camper navigate and solve a difficult situation. Imagine, instead, if that camper was to call home in the instant they become upset, and demand a parent’s immediate intervention. The opportunity for guided learning and growth is lost, and the camper continues to be dependent upon their usual support system.

So what is our policy? We would prefer that all cell phones and any devices with online service, be left at home. However, if a teen is extremely unwilling to comply – then their device should be handed into the camp office. Campers are able to access their phones at scheduled phone times, twice weekly. They can check social media, call home, and do anything else they need at that time.

As technology is constantly changing, camps have to review their technology policies regularly, to ensure that they are enforceable and reasonable – in line with what campers and staff may need, and also with what parents and campers are willing to accept. It is already the case that some teens choose not to go to overnight camp because they are so technology-dependent … and that’s worrying. At Centauri, our technology policy is reviewed during pre-camp staff training every year. Last year, I was surprised at how many of our staff rely totally on e-readers. The time may come when it will be impossible to ‘ban’ technology at camp, unless we are also willing to ban reading!

When we first introduced our new cell phone policy at camp three years ago, we expected a lot of phones to turn up – that didn’t happen. Maybe 10% of our campers bring their phone with them – almost always the older teens. We also expected that campers who brought their phones would spend every minute of the allotted time using them. That didn’t happen, either. Campers usually call their parents, check social media quickly, then head back to their dorm.

Why? Because they are so invested in what is happening among their camp friends that they don’t want to miss a single thing.

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Founding Director at Centauri Arts Camp
Julie Hartley is a writer, director, storyteller, speaker and playwright who teaches theatre at the high school and university level, in Canada and in the UK. She is the author of more than twenty plays for young people, many of which have been performed across Canada and the British Isles. Hartley was shortlisted for the International Pilot Pen writing award and was the recipient of the 2010 Peace Poetry Prize in the UK. Her poetry and short stories have been published in literary magazines in England and Canada, including This Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event Magazine and CV2. She is a founding director of Centauri Summer Arts Camp, which offers 40 residential summer arts courses each year for youth from all over the world. Hartley works as a freelance writer, director, storyteller, theatre workshop leader and keynote speaker, while continuing as a director of Centauri Summer Arts. She is currently working on a novel, and completing a drama handbook for teachers.