Getting Off the Grid at Sleepaway Camp

In a world that moves at the speed of social, astonishingly, not much has changed in the 100-year-plus history of traditional sleepaway camp. Kids still sing songs around campfires, shiver in cold lakes, and muscle through homesickness. But modernity has a way of creeping in — at least to appease those paying the tuition — and at many camps this has taken the form of a much mocked, daily ritual of Camp Parent photo trolling.

It seems harmless and honestly, a brilliant form of marketing — camps posting pictures of their happy campers going about their carefree days in the great outdoors — invigorating their spirits and bodies as they kayak, play sports and shoot bows and arrows. But the parents, especially the rookie ones, desperate to catch a glimpse of their child in their rugged habitat, analyze the photos with the precision of a military drone pilot. In a sea of faces, a camp mother can locate her camper cub in a nanosecond and assess all that’s happening on the ground. She analyzes the quality of the smile — is it forced or natural? She looks at the child’s placement in the picture? Is she or he in the middle or perched on the shoulders of a counselor or the back of a bestie? A clear sign of adoration and popularity. Or are they clinging onto the periphery trying to squeeze in, photo bombing the picture, but not in an ironic way? Are they wearing adequate Color War face paint to show an all-in camp spirit, arms joyfully flailing, eyes bugging out as lungs nearly explode mid-cheer? Or are they hanging in the back, unadorned, unenthusiastic, obvious castoffs in the camp community?

No nuance is too small for the camp parent to detect. A cheerful picture can make your day. A less upbeat one — or worse yet, no photos at all — can crush it.

As a veteran camp mom, deep into my sixth summer now, I will confess that I have logged an extraordinary amount of time on my kids’ camp websites — time that would have been better spent purging my closets, learning HTML or mastering Mahjong.

But this summer, the best image I have is not of my 13-year-old daughter, Lexi, frolicking at Camp Mataponi in Maine, but instead of her lonely iPhone resting unplugged and turned off on her nightstand a distant 365 miles away from her bunk. When I walk past Lexi’s empty room, her bed neatly made awaiting her return, it’s Lexi’s iPhone sitting there untouched that makes me the happiest.

A few summers ago I wrote a piece for CNN about how sleepaway camp is great for kids and their parents. Camp gets children offline and gives parents a much needed break too from, well, parenting — and more specifically that suffocating, overscheduling, extreme parenting that’s good for no one.

Since I wrote that story in 2013, addiction to technology and our cultural dependence on social media — at least anecdotally speaking, and by that I mean studying my own children, has reached epidemic proportions. If Instagram were the gateway drug, the Snapchat stories have become crack.

Spend a few days with pretty much any typical tween or teen and it’s easy to be alarmed by their excessive phone time — which by the way is no longer just a device for communication, it’s the conduit to all things social. All things entirely. Cell phone addiction has been declared a mental health issue, blamed for anxiety, a tool for bullying, and, of course, outrageously expensive data charges, which admittedly may not rank with bullying, but is no small matter.

In early June as my kids’ countdown to camp began, weeks before camp even started, I became more and more pumped, not that they were leaving me, but that when they left they would be digitally disconnected for seven weeks. That’s right — they were being shipped to a world where digital devices are a total no-no. I was giddy with anticipation. How would Lexi, whose daily Snapchat story streams have defined seventh grade, survive?

“When the girls get to camp, especially the older ones and completely detach from their devices, it can be a tough first few days,” says Dan Isdaner, owner and director of Camp Mataponi, who is also the dad to three girls. “But then it’s total relief. It’s a forced detox and the girls feel liberated. They say it and we see it.”

I saw it too.

When the Camp Mataponi pictures uploaded on those first few days, I was logged in, scanning the online gallery, eager to see my daughter. What struck me was how spontaneously joyful Lexi looked in the photos. The girls were piled on the porch outside their bunk, Lexi with her big, braces-filled smile.

Gone were the Kardashian pouty lips, duck faces or the hands on hips with shoulders angled just so — the modeling trick to make an arm look thinner, a waist smaller. There would be no cheeky captions, painstakingly crafted to generate the most “likes.”

In these camp photos Lexi looked liberated from the emotional drain of always being on — her social media avatar had gone into summer hibernation and her authentic 13-year-old self was free to just be. It’s bizarre to say that my daughter looked younger, but weirdly, she kind of did. And that is part of the glory of camp. It is a place to be yourself and for kids to still be kids, where girls at thirteen still hold hands and vigorously cheer each other on as they scale a rock wall.

While some of my friends were charging their kids’ phones to bring them to visiting day for the “conjugal visit” as my friend Allison called it, I was thrilled and a little shocked that Lexi never asked for hers. She wanted chili-flavored Doritos and Tootsie Roll Pops and requested a sandwich from her favorite deli, but her phone, she didn’t miss. Like sugar or caffeine, after going on a tech cold turkey, maybe she lost that craving.

At camp visiting day, Lexi was engaged and present for a stretch of six hours in a way that I haven’t seen all year. I watched her race the ropes course and slalom ski for the first time. Untethered to technology, Lexi wasn’t distracted by her furious stream of incoming posts and texts that consumed her day to day at home. We were able to talk, yes, talk! For hours without the relentless interruption and tug of a phone, I felt like I had my daughter back.

The irony was not lost on me — or my husband — that while Lexi was offline, I was anything but. As Lexi prepared for campfire that night, I was curating and editing all of the photos and videos I shot — not for my own personal album, but to share on my social feeds.

Kids are not the only ones who stand to benefit from camp. If Camp Mataponi would have me next year, I would happily jump into the lake and leave my phone behind.