Then and now: why summer camp is more important than ever

| 31 Jan 2019 | 11:42

BY Andy Pritikin

Our children are growing up so much differently than we did, with so much of their lives spent staring at and touching glowing screens. I looked for information in my encyclopedia, dictionary or local library, while kids can find a fact through their fingertips in seconds. But while we are more connected to everything and everybody through technology, we are far less connected to each other on a personal level than ever before.

For thousands and thousands of years we made friends organically, until about 15 years ago, when we began meeting people through MySpace, then Facebook, Instagram, video game headsets. We used to be able to get from one place to another without a glowing screen directing us. While we used to play outside after school, and all day on the weekends and all summer — and now most neighborhoods look like outdoor ghost towns. Where are the children? Oh, we know where most of them are — staring at their glowing screens.

Don’t get me wrong, I love IMDB, YouTube, the Red Zone channel, and seeing my high school friends’ kids grow up, but there is no doubt amongst layman and experts that we as a human race are quickly losing our social relationship skills, simply because we aren’t using them much with much frequency anymore. You don’t use it, you lose it. And with our kids, if you never do it, you never learn it.


I was at an NFL tailgate party recently, one of the last bastions of old-school socializing, watching a 10-year-old boy mercilessly beg his parents for his iPad, and then proceed to sit in the car for an hour playing games on it. Not his fault — his parents enabled the behavior. When 23 percent of babies have TVs in their rooms, and 25 percent of kids under age six own a smartphone-type device with internet access, how can we be surprised that this is what so many children have become. Research shows that screen time in young children is leading to increased inattention, anxiety and depression, according to the Journal of Educational Psychology. Just like too much sugar suppresses the immune system, too much screen time is suppressing our kids’ brain development.

Young people from 8 to 18 consume an average of over 7 hours of screen media per day, often while multitasking, a statistic that has increased 2.5 hours in the past 10 years. Their excessive screen time is now being linked to increased hyperactivity, emotional and behavior problems, and difficulty with peers and school. Sign of the times, or lazy parenting? A 2010 Kaiser Foundation study found that 8 out of 10 parents do not monitor their children’s screen time. Parents come home after long days of work and don’t want to spend the precious little time they have arguing with their kids to put away their devices. Weekends and summers, the majority of a child’s waking hours can be spent staring at glowing screens.


If technology is a drug, we the parents are the dealers. The research company dscout put a tracker on phones and found the average adult touching, swiping or clicking their phone 2,617 times per day. The top 10 percent over 5,000 times per day! We are living in a state of what researchers describe as “continuous partial attention,” as humans (no matter what they tell you) are simply unable to pay full attention to any one thing when the phone is within reach. We all need to put our phones away, and give our kids (and our life) our full attention.

One last bit of research: A multi-year study of 50,000 high schoolers led by noted author/researcher Jean Twenge showed unequivocally that the happiest kids use screens less than an hour per day, and that teens who spend more time in face-to-face, in-person interaction with friends are happiest. We all want our kids to be happy, right? Well, there is actually an inverse relationship between happiness and time spent on screens for your children. We need to have the discipline and commitment to do what is best for our kids in the long run. So how and where can we distract our kids from their screens while giving them the best opportunities to grow into good people and contributing members of society? Two words:


Traditional, outdoor, hot, sweaty, buggy, muddy, summer camp. Because, simply put, camp is the antidote to the traps of modern society. Camp is like a vitamin supplement of the vital things our kids’ lives are missing: face-to-face interactions, collaborating together in groups, and navigating the ups and downs of relationships. It’s also a place where kind, caring people other than parents help teach them the skills of life like making friendships, using integrity, self-regulation and independence. At my camp it’s simple: Electronics are strictly forbidden. While at first the kids (and staff) may complain, in the end they literally thank us. They cry tears of joy as they hug their friends and counselors on their last day of camp, eager to return next summer to their magical utopia where they can be their authentic self, and not a social media avatar jonesing for their next Instagram/Snapchat dopamine hit.


In the 25 years that I’ve been running summer camps, I am absolutely seeing the pendulum swinging back to a sense of normalcy with today’s younger parents. The last generation was overwhelmed by the onset of internet technology, combined with the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality and keeping our precious offspring air-conditioned and sheltered from challenges. Fast forward to today, and young parents see the mistakes of the past and want no part of it for their children. They want their kids outdoors, tolerating frustrations, conquering challenges, meeting new people, and empathetically working with others.

The new generation is also less interested in money/materialism, and more about gaining new experiences, and being good people — two things that good camps specialize in. Every year, foreign parents sending tens of thousands of their kids overseas to hundreds of American summer camps — they understand the value of camp. Savvy city people get it, bussing their kids to suburban day camps and sleepaway camps in droves like never before. Yet McMansion suburbanite parents who never went to camp themselves are slow to take the leap. Look at the stats, look at your kids! Summer camp is more important than ever before, filling the societal gap left by schools focused on testing, busy parents and glowing screens.

Andy Pritikin is the Owner/Director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Mansfield Township, NJ, and past President of the American Camp Association, NY/NJ