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Free swim is a magical time. This summer at Camp Watitoh I would often join boy’s camp for their daily afternoon swim on the shores of Center Lake. While there was some structure during free swim - you were required to check in with at least one buddy into a designated swim area supervised by lifeguards - every camper utilized that time differently. Some kids elected to play in the shallow water and build elaborate sandcastles and water channels. Other boys spent the entire free swim jumping on the trampoline or sliding down the waterslide. Older kids would usually check into the deeper swim areas, kayak, or play water basketball. Older and younger campers would often pair up and play together. Many kids would check into and out of different areas of the waterfront to engage in different types of play throughout the hour. Protests were often heard when the final whistle blew signaling the end of free swim, especially from the boys finishing their sandcastles.

This behavior during free swim might not seem extraordinary, and yet, our youth are spending less time engaging in self-directed play and more and more time on screens. A recent study found that in 2021, tweens (ages 8-12) spent about five and a half hours a day on screens, while teens (ages 13 to 18) spent about eight and a half hours a day on screens (Moyer, 2022). Recent data released by the National Survey of Children’s Health found that in 2020 only 19.8% of school-aged children were physically active for at least one hour per day (Lebrun-Harris et al., 2022). How is this affecting our kids? And why is it essential to provide kids spaces, like camp, where they can play and create together without the distractions of modern technology?

Social Media and Youth Mental Health

In 2007, Apple first released the iPhone and by 2012 had sold about 270 million units, equivalent to the population age 10 and older in the United States at that time. Translation - smartphones proliferated very quickly into modern society. And today there is a growing body of research that suggests heavy social media use is adversely impacting youth development.

According to Dr. Michael Rich, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, kids’ developing brains make it harder for them to limit their time on screens. Social media utilizes the same variable reward system that makes gambling so addictive. Unlike adults, a “young person’s brain lacks a fully developed self-control system to help them with stopping this kind of obsessive behavior” (Ruder, 2014). In a 2022 Pew Research Center study of American teenagers, 35% responded that they were using one of the top five social media platforms (YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook) online “almost constantly” (Vogels et al., 2022). And with the proliferation of smartphones and social media, rates of juvenile anxiety and depression have risen. From 2016 to 2020, researchers analyzing data from the National Survey of Children’s Health found that rates of anxiety and depression increased 29% and 27%, respectively, for children ages 3-17 (Lebrun-Harris et al., 2022).

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at the NYU Stern School of Business, and Dr. Jean Twinge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, have been compiling research about the links between social media and adolescent mental health. Through their work, they have found that many studies, using a variety of methods, suggest a strong link between heavy social media use and poor mental health, especially for girls (Haidt & Twenge, 2022).

Haidt also notes that Instagram especially magnifies pressures for teens. “Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them” (Haidt, 2021). Teens especially, can obsess over what they post on platforms like instagram, “even when the app is not open, driving hours of obsessive thought, worry, and shame” (Haidt, 2021).

Dr. Jenny Radesky, Assistant Professor at University of Michigan Medical School, focuses her research on the intersection of mobile technology and child development. Radesky (2018) surveyed a thorough study that suggests high-frequency digital media use is linked to an increase in new ADHD symptoms amongst teens, and researchers are also finding that heavy social media use leads to an increase in narcissistic behavior (James et al., 2017).

On a more hopeful note, there is also evidence that teens get relief when they take a break from social media. Many experiments have shown that reducing or eliminating social media use for a week or more improves your mental health (Haidt, 2021). And luckily, millions of kids each summer are doing just that.

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The Importance of Play

Take a minute to think of a joyful childhood memory when you were engaged in play. Perhaps from camp or somewhere else. Where were you? Who was there? What were you doing? Was a smartphone involved? OK, now fast forward to today. Do you see kids playing in the same way you did as a child? Playing more? Playing less? If you have kids, do they play as freely as you did as a child, with the same amount of supervision?

It’s no secret that kids love to play. And at camp, kids play all day in very creative ways. Campers make up stories, skits and songs, choose how to play during free time, pick their own activities, play together during cabin nights and overnights, in the bunks, at free swim, during meals…all over the place! Camp is an incubator of play, and there are so many unplanned moments of spontaneous play throughout the day. It’s a gift that cultivates joy. And, it’s also a critical pathway through which kids learn, grow, and develop into adults who can successfully navigate the world around them.

Play is important for social-emotional growth, developing social skills, and building strong friendships. It allows kids to explore social interactions in low risk situations. “Getting repeated feedback in a low-stakes environment is one of the main ways that play builds social skills” (Haidt 2021). When kids play together they learn to notice and interpret social cues, listen, take another person’s perspective, and share ideas and feelings in the process of negotiating and compromising (Shafer, 2018). In his Ted Talk, The Decline of Play, psychologist Dr. Peter Gray further advocates for the importance of play. “Play is nature’s way of ensuring that …young human beings…acquire the skills that they need to develop successfully into adulthood” (Gray, 2014). When you send your kids to camp they’re not only having fun, they’re cultivating tools that will support them in navigating life.

Sleepaway camp facilitates all the different components of playful learning - choice, wonder, and delight (Shafer, 2018). At camp, kids choose many of their activities, how they spend their free time, what games to play together in the bunk, what songs and chants to start in the dining hall, the song for the annual lip sync dance-off, etc. My favorite part of free swim at camp was watching the younger kids build sand castles, self-directed, for the entire hour. They negotiated rules, shared priorities, took turns holding different roles, and successfully navigated conflict without adult intervention. When kids play at camp, the wonder (exploring, creating, imagining, etc.) and delight (joy!) is easy to see.

Returning to the sandcastle scene, it was evident how play was helping these kids learn to collaborate. Over the course of the hour the kids would take on different roles. One boy would dig channels with the shovel, and another would gather sand with a bucket. Some would be in charge of detailing the tops of the castles, while others would step back and plan their next expansion. When one boy wanted to change roles, he would have to ask another to swap tools and positions. Sometimes changing roles required the boys to negotiate how much longer each of them would continue in their current role before switching. If one didn’t agree with another’s suggestion he would respond, “I don’t think that’s fair”, leading the boys to consider what might feel fair to both of them. They nearly always found a compromise. In many ways, play is the antithesis of heavy social media use. The act of play places kids in situations where they are continually learning, connecting, increasing their empathy, trying new modes of social engagement, and have the time and space for observation and contemplation that help them process their social experiences.

Free play also supports cognitive development, especially in younger children. It has been shown to increase neural connections in the brain (increasing pathways we use for critical thinking), build and strengthen the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, attention, problem-solving, impulse control, and planning), and support language skills (Blahey, 2021). And while kids are playing at camp, the absence of technology relieves the pressures of social media and actually helps kids sleep better. When humans text and use phones late at night they inevitably get less sleep, and they also lose out on the deep REM stage of sleep, which is critical for helping kids process and store events from the day into memory (Haidt 2021).

When you ask kids why they love camp they might mention the sense of community, fun activities, camp traditions, and connection to the outdoors. And, what they might not realize is that time without their smartphones and away from screens is good for their mental health. The absence of this technology creates space for children to play together, which helps kids grow cognitively and socially, and build meaningful, authentic connections with their peers. It’s no wonder that we always hear from our campers that “camp friends are the best friends”. When camps implement a “no technology” policy for campers, what they are really saying is that we want camp to be the best place possible for kids.

We hope that however your children spend their summers, you are able to preserve time for them to play together without technology. Kids need and want support structuring their screen time. Sending your child to a sleepaway camp is one way you can help them understand and feel the benefits of spending time away from screens. And when your child returns from camp this is the perfect opportunity to engage them in a discussion about what it was like spending multiple weeks without a cell phone or computer. Together you can make a plan about how to structure their screen time at home so they have more time to play.

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Blahey, L. (2021, August 04). The Power of Play: 6 Benefits for Child Development

Conklin, H. G. (2015, March 03). Playtime Isn’t Just for Preschoolers-Teenagers Need It, Too

Gray, P. (2014, June 13). The Decline of Play

Haidt, J., & Twenge, J. (ongoing). Social Media and Mental Health: A Collaborative Review

James, C., Davis, K., Charmaraman, L., Konrath, S., Slovak, P., Weinstein, E., & Yarosh, L. (2017). Digital life and youth well-being, social connectedness, empathy, and narcissism. Pediatrics, 140(Suppl 2), S75.

Lebrun-Harris LA, Ghandour RM, Kogan MD, Warren MD. Five-Year Trends in US Children’s Health and Well-being, 2016-2020. JAMA Pediatr. 2022;176(7):e220056. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.0056

Moyer, M. W. (2022, March 24). Kids as Young as 8 Are Using Social Media More Than Ever, Study Finds

Radesky, J. (2018). Digital media and symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in adolescents. Jama, 320(3), 237–239.

Rideout, V. & Foehr, U. & Roberts, D. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Shafer, L. (2018, June 12). Summertime, Playtime

Vogels, E., Gelles-Watnick, R., & Massarat, N. (2022, August 10). Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022