Conceptualizing the impact of technology on adolescent well-being in the silicon age.
MTC is effectively a tech free camp for our campers, and largely so for our staff. Technology is not absent – campers can listen to music on an MP3 player, staff record camper music on computers, campers can access a limited email system to communicate home, staff will use phones for communication and weather monitoring. However all of these uses are intentional, serving a wider programming or safety goal. Technology that does not help advance the core camp values and programming is not allowed. The question often asked is why technology isn’t allowed in camp. We think this is the wrong question. Instead, we would ask, why would technology be allowed in camp?
To answer this question, it’s helpful to conceptualize the way that we think about camper social and emotional well being at camp. While camp is not a therapeutic setting, it can help set a stable platform for teenage campers to enjoy a summer of well-being. We think of this platform, in the camp context, as having three supports (legs), and we know that the introduction of technology, particularly in the form of smartphones, social media and games, can undermine any of the three legs, destabilizing the platform as a result.
The three legs of a stable platform for camper social and emotional well-being in the camp context are
- The social landscape
Of course, there are a great many other internal and external factors that play a role in the emotional life of adolescents, but we have little control over family dynamics, academic pressures, hormonal changes, political climates, or biology. At MTC, we do have input into how the camp culture treats each member of the community, how much sleep we get, and what we do with our time.
The impact of technology on the social lives of teenagers has been, and will continue to be, transformative. It is well documented, on the positive and negative sides of the ledger, so we will not go into exhaustive detail on either side here. We will note however, that post-summer, technology can nurture camp friendships at minimal costs, over vast distances. This is the positive side of the ledger. Unfortunately, we see the negative side of the ledger just as clearly. Whether it’s the presence of technology interfering with the development of fundamental skills that foster social interactions (technology has been shown to interfere with social skill development in children and teens, and to degrade these skills across age groups); online forums debasing the standard of civic discourse through online platforms that encourage extremism; or social media creating unrealistic expectations that are impossible to measure up to; a technologically influenced social landscape is very different, much harder to navigate, and much more stressful. Without the impact of tech, campers can make friends, work on social skills, and navigate a landscape that is easier to understand, moves slower, and is more authentic. Ironically, the skills gained in such an environment appear to be protective when transferred to an online environment, hence our desire to maintain a tech-free social landscape for our campers.
Sleep is the underappreciated keystone of a healthy, happy life. We know that those who get adequate sleep (defined as 9 hours per night for teenagers) make better decisions so take fewer bad risks, learn new information and recall old information more easily, experience less stress, have more willpower and attention to spend during the day, make healthier eating choices, experience greater creativity, live longer and even have more empathy. Those who fail to get enough sleep experience a cascade of negative physical and mental outcomes, all of which have a negative impact on their emotional well-being. Basically – it is really, really hard to be happy and healthy when you don’t get enough sleep. Again, the impacts of technology on sleep are well documented in the scientific literature as well as the media narrative. Physiologically, screens can interfere with sleep, the mechanism being that certain wavelengths of blue light emitted by screens disrupt the delicate hormonal recipe that the body and brain use to enter and stay in a sleep state. Psychologically, technology can interfere with sleep in the same way technology can interfere with many other aspects of life – by being compelling to the point of addictive. Modern personal tech is designed to hold our attention well beyond the point of intention. In the camp setting, we take the decision out of the campers’ hands, literally. It’s not that we don’t trust them to make good choices, we just know that the game is rigged against all of us. If we want to ensure campers reap the benefits of a full night’s sleep, to allow them to experience all the wonders of a summer at camp at peak efficiency, we just don’t play the tech companies game.
Nature is another of the underappreciated but vitally important players in well-being. It is not just nature either, it’s the things that happen when we go outside. Play. Contemplation. Exposure to fresh air, sunlight, and patterns and sounds not found indoors. When we go into nature, we are going to the home of our ancestors. Our species did not evolve under fluorescent lights, gazing at LED screens, hearing the hum of air-conditioning. We are designed to be in spaces surrounded by the patterns and colors of nature – we can distinguish more shades of green than any other color; our brains default to a restorative mode by gazing on the fractal patterns of woods, sky and water; the sounds of wind in the trees, a stream tumbling on rocks, or waves lapping a beach reduces our stress levels and improves blood flow to the brain. Furthermore, when people, children especially, go outdoors, they are more likely to engage in unstructured play, the sort of play that sparks creativity and improves social skills. The advice from parents of bored children to “go outside” is old wisdom that’s been patiently waiting for science to catch up. It works because time spent in nature pre-disposes us to contemplation and creative thinking. Boredom is not a mental state. It’s a signal to the brain to get cracking, to seek out novelty, to find a new avenue of exploration.
Technology interferes with all of this in the most obvious, and destructive ways. So much of the time, technology captures the attention while you are indoors, and traps the body there. Mobile technology, ironically, may make it worse. When we take our tech with us into nature, we engage with the tech, not the nature. We miss the patterns, the sounds, the creative contemplation. The infinite choices of a free afternoon spent outside get whittled down to just one – giving attention to the device. Worse, the box “go outside” has been ticked, but the benefits have not accrued. Pokemon Go was a perfect example. Widely lauded at the time as being a beneficial game, because users got outside while playing, what it really did was minimize or eliminate many of the positive impacts of being outside – players were not engaged in imaginative play or creative contemplation nor were they watching the patterns of passing clouds or wind moving across water. They may have got their heart rates up versus sitting on a couch, but that’s about it. At camp, nature is ever present. One of our main goals at camp is to simply get kids outside, day and night. The more time they spend, the more they notice, the more the effects accrue. Smartphones change this. A camper with a smartphone walking back to a cabin from evening program is more likely to be looking down at a screen than looking up at the stars. This alone is reason enough for us.
There is one other aspect to the natural setting of camp that makes strong and consistent camper interaction with their surroundings so vital. The sense of place. Above all else, summer camp is a place-based experience. Campers and staff create communities that are intrinsically tied to the camp setting. It is simply not possible to create the same experience elsewhere. The place helps create the meaning, enhance learning, and build stronger connections between community members. If technology threatens that, a unique and important part of the camp experience is lost.
Healthy socialization, sleep, nature. By keeping these supports strong and stable, by paying attention to the mechanics that make them work, MTC helps our campers gain lived experience of what it means to use technology as an intentional, limited and discrete tool. Technology doesn’t have to be pervasive, a fact that many parents and communities are starting to embrace. We live in an age of wonders, with access to communications and content creation tools that were firmly in the realm of science fiction 25 years ago. We see our role at camp as one that provides campers and staff a reminder that while some of life’s tasks and experiences are enhanced by the addition of technology, other experiences suffer when technology is introduced. Camp provides a time, and a space, to gain first-hand knowledge of what is possible without the distractions and compulsions technology brings into our lives. When campers understand how rich in-person social interactions should be, how efficiently their minds and bodies work when well slept, and how time spent outdoors enhances well being and spurs creativity, they are thus equipped to make informed choices about how, when and where they want technology in their lives, and when they can go without.
Camp prepares campers for lives spent in a technology rich world by helping them learn control, intention, and to value their own curiosity, creativity, social skills and attention. It sounds hard, until you do it. And it is so worthwhile.