Campers were allowed to bring smartphones, tablets and other technology to Longacre Camp for the first time in the summer of 2013. (Jennifer Hsu/WNYC)
Will a bold experiment in Pennsylvania create good habits for kids, or ruin a summer ritual?
Set on a woodsy hilltop dotted with tents, it has exactly the organic-farming-community-building-exhuberant-but-not-too-crazy-competitive spirit that would attract a lot of yuppie Brooklyn parents who are nervous about sending their offspring away for the summer.
The campers refer to each other as “farmers.” They milk goats, collect eggs, pick fresh lettuce and go on wholesome outings to nearby Hershey Park and the local bowling alley.
So you might think, “Wow, what a great chance for teens to unplug and enjoy nature and make new friends! No distracting video games and social media apps!”
But the camp’s director had something else in mind this year.
Matt Smith is the son of Longacre’s founders. He’s 31 years old, and this is his first summer in charge. He has a different philosophy than his parents when it comes to leadership.
He feels that, for teenagers today, “leadership” isn’t about learning to take charge. It’s about learning how to make decisions for yourself, take considered actions and set boundaries.
Our constant immersion in gadgets is making it harder and harder for kids to develop those skills, Smith says.
So rather than mandate a digital blackout, he decided to help his campers develop ways to cope with technology.
As Smith explained, “This generation is the first to be grappling with this. They grew up with screens and smartphone technology. We just figured if we are going to prepare them for life, part of that preparation has to be learning to find balance in their lives with technology.”
When I first talked to Smith in June, before camp started, he was nervous about Longacre’s new “Anything Goes” policy.
The camp encouraged the teens to bring along their smartphones, tablets and other digital devices, but on Day 1, they had to hand their gadgets over to Smith and stay tech-free for the first week so they could get to know one another face to face.
When the campers were reunited with their gadgets, all hell broke loose.
Kids ran to The Octagon, the only cabin with electricity, to plug in. They ignored each other and holed up in tent corners to tweet, update Facebook, text, call and be gamified.
Kimmy, a girl from Long Island, described those first hours back with her phone as an out-of-body experience: “I know this sounds strange but I didn’t even know where I was. I was like wait, am I talking to my friends or am I at camp?”
In late July, when I went to visit the camp with WNYC’s Jenn Hsu and Collin Campbell, the kids had gotten used to having their gadgets back. Some of them had grown philosophical about technology. Many decided to set limits for themselves…and for their friends.
Kids who wore their headphones too often got dirty looks. Some campers restricted themselves to texting during quiet time. One girl even handed her phone back to Smith. She felt the constant contact with her friends and family reignited the homesickness that had abated during her first week.
Looking back, Smith says he thinks his campers were less anxious when their gadgets were tucked away.
“Adolescents want to socialize, be accepted, try new behaviors, separate from their parents,” he said. “Those are all normal behaviors and I understand why social media can be an allure. But camp and other kids can provide that.”
During our visit, I saw a lot of hugging and hand-holding at Longacre. There was kitchen duty, gardening, lasso instruction, swimming, lots of singing and a cave exploration field trip. Fun stuff.
One teenage boy told us, “People don’t see technology as tools anymore. They see them as friends.”
Despite his disgust with what gadgets can do to real-life relationships, he confided that after trying out his bunkmate’s iPhone, he was definitely going to buy one when he got home.
“I’m not going to use it as much as other people, but I still want to know about it,” he told me.
This camper had discovered where he drew the line on technology.
At least one mission accomplished, Matt Smith.