7 Weeks in the Woods: Unplugged

I have taken a sabbatical from my “real” job this summer to work at my kids’ sleep away camp in the Berkshires. It’s a whole different world in so many ways. One of the many things that attracted us to this particular camp was its “no electronics” policy. Campers are allowed to have devices that play music only. My kids have more screen time than I’d like during the rest of the year so I’m happy that they get a break over the summer. The campers are so busy enjoying the great outdoors that they don’t miss their smart phones, TVs, computers, video games and iPads…right?

Not entirely. Some sneaky campers with phones or iPods ostensibly to play music have figured out how to hide their apps for inspection, then enable them when they want to use them. The camp just locked the WiFi, restricting staff to one registered device each, because the campers were using it. Why do the kids go to such great lengths for Internet access? Part of the allure is the thrill of getting away with something…the same reason they try to smuggle in candy (which isn’t allowed in bunks either). But it’s also that they’re digital natives, addicted to their portable electronic devices because they’ve grown up in a world where they’re omnipresent. Take them away and these kids are like junkies going through detox. They may know it’s good to break the habit but they’re jonesing for an electronics fix.

I have to admit that I’ve been experiencing a bit of withdrawal myself. My new surroundings have had a dramatic impact on my media habits. I have no TV or WiFi in my room, so my plan to watch streaming video on my iPad didn’t pan out (no Orange is the New Black Season 3 for me!) I have to sit near the administration building…where I am right now…to be within WiFi range. I did download a couple of shows from iTunes and an e-book so I can use them later. I won’t even get into how much time it has taken me to complete this posting, finally giving up trying to do it all on my iPad and borrowing a computer.

I feel very disconnected from the outside world. There’s no Today show while I get dressed in the morning and no New York Times app on the train to work to keep me informed. I can understand why my son once told me that he feels safe at camp. There’s no news about Isis or escaped convicts or deranged shooters here…just playing and having fun in a warm, supportive environment. It’s a wonderful cocoon, removed from the real world.

Cellular phone service is also spotty at best. Because I need to be reachable by the camp office, I’m carrying around an old AT&T phone in addition to my Verizon iPhone. Usually at least one of them works.

Once you have 24/7 connectivity it’s hard to lose it, or to discipline yourself not to use it. While on vacation with a group of friends in Jamaica last year we all used our phones, iPads and laptops to check in with our kids and work. As a group we were pretty good about not over-doing it, but I did wonder how much more relaxed we would be if we didn’t feel pressure to communicate with the folks back home simply because we had the capacity to do so. It’s like working remotely; it can be a blessing or a curse. It’s great to be able to be productive when you’re snowed in or have a sick kid, but we feel pressure to work mornings, evenings and weekends to be competitive. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

I think it’s sad when I see groups of young people who are all staring at their screens instead of talking to each other. What’s happening right around them has become less important than what else is happening, as reported via text or social networks.

We don’t ban the use of electronic devices in my home; my husband and I feel it’s important for our kids to develop digital skills to keep up with their education and eventually their career prospects. But we do hope to instill an appreciation for moderation, an understanding that there’s a time and a place for screen time. For example there are no electronics at our dinner table, at home or in restaurants.

I was talking to a parent who has a pretty strict no electronics policy in his home. He and his wife conceded to getting their 6th grader a smart phone because that’s how the kids communicate about things like homework assignments and sports practices. But they came up with a contract stipulating that the phone is a privilege, not a right, and may be rescinded at any time if the usage guidelines (such as no games) are not met.

Like childhood obesity, too much screen time is a first world problem. Having gone without easy access I can now understand how important it is for poor, remote areas of the U.S. and developing nations to have Internet and cellular service. The disparity is creating the “Haves” and “Have Nots” of the Information Age. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports Internet access in libraries in the U.S. and abroad:

In an age where economic, educational, health, and social opportunities increasingly depend on access to the Internet, lack of access means lack of opportunity. Only 35 percent of the world’s population is connected to the Internet, and people in rural and poor communities are the least likely to have online access or the skills to navigate the digital world. Through the Internet, people search for employment, find markets for their crops and products, access government programs, learn new skills through online courses, research important health issues, and engage in social interactions with distant family members and friends.

Companies like Google and Facebook also have programs to help increase access to the Internet in developing countries. Of course they have a vested interest in maximizing the number of Internet users in the world, but they’re doing good while they’re doing what’s good for their business.

The bottom line: Too much time on the Internet is bad because people lose their appreciation for experiencing life for its own sake, not so they can post about it. No internet is bad because people don’t have access to basic tools and information necessary to succeed in today’s world economy. But moderate use of the Internet, to supplement rather than replace our social connections and enhance our academic and occupational prospects, is just right. We all need to find the balance that’s best for ourselves and our kids.

Now put down the phone, go out and breathe some fresh air, and talk to a real human being for a while. You’ll be glad you did.

a while. You’ll be glad you did.