Summer Camps Are The Last Tech-Free Oasis, But Helicopter Parents Can't Unplug : NPR Ed In a wired world, summer camp is one of the last phone-free zones. But campers, staff and especially parents don't always appreciate the message.

Are Helicopter Parents Ruining Summer Camp?

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Millions of kids are spending some of their summer at sleepaway camps. That means cabins, canoes, mosquitoes, but no cellphones. The American Camp Association says that 9 out of 10 of its camps ban electronics. This makes summer camp one of those increasingly rare places, a tech-free zone.

NPR's Anya Kamenetz visited a camp in upstate New York to see how that's working out. She found many of the children grow to appreciate being unplugged, but some of the parents have a really hard time with it.


ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Eighty miles north of New York City, in a blue dining hall next to a lake, it's time for song session.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Singing) Hey, hey, Bo Diddley Bop.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I wish I was back on the block.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Singing) I wish I was back on the block.

KAMENETZ: This is Camp Echo, established in 1924. And just like in the old days, the focus here is on talent shows, swimming, letting lots of energy out...


UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: We're losing our voice.

KAMENETZ: ...But not technology.

JEFF GRABOW: It's a chance for our children to put down their phones, let go of technology, learn to make eye contact, have conversations and make real relationships.

KAMENETZ: That's Jeff Grabow, the camp director.

GRABOW: The side-by-side playdates where they're texting each other, that doesn't happen here.

KAMENETZ: Campers as young as 9 tell us they have phones at home.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: I do have a phone. I miss it.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: I miss Snapchat.


UNIDENTIFIED BOY: I lost all of my streaks. It's so sad.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: Snapchat, Instagram,

KAMENETZ: But here, the no electronic devices policy is hardcore. In the first week, one camper was sent home for three days after being caught with a phone. Dave Brand (ph) is one of the boy's head counselors. He says campers have been known to turn in outdated devices as decoys.

DAVE BRAND: Yeah, I don't know who's using an iPhone 3 here, but usually that's kind of a warning sign they may have something else.

KAMENETZ: Ten-year-old Samantha Grossman (ph) says some of her friends complain about the rule.

SAMANTHA: They're like, oh my, God, I miss my phone so much. I'm not going to be able to last till visiting day without my phone. This is an issue.

KAMENETZ: But most campers grow to appreciate the time away from texting, YouTube, Snapchat, like 11-year-old Alexa Sherman.

ALEXA: Kind of like letting go of everything and just coming to a different world. It's hard to have as much fun if you're just looking down at a screen the whole time.

KAMENETZ: Andrew Glassman (ph), 13, agrees.

ANDREW: It's peaceful having everyone, like, aware of their surroundings and being able to have a conversation without an interruption, like a bing.

MEG BARTHEL: This is the only place in my life that people have constant eye-to-eye conversations.

KAMENETZ: Meg Barthel is the girl's head counselor. This is her 14th summer at Camp Echo.

BARTHEL: I love it. I look forward to it every summer.

KAMENETZ: The girls learn to work out conflicts face to face, she says.

BARTHEL: These are life skills.

KAMENETZ: But Barthel needs to keep her own device to check in. Not with campers - with parents.

BARTHEL: I am in contact with the mothers of camp who are used to this constant communication with their daughters.

KAMENETZ: How many messages a day do you get from moms?

BARTHEL: Up to 100.

KAMENETZ: Some camps post pictures and video online for parents. But Grabow, the camp director, says this can backfire.

GRABOW: They dissect every picture. And (laughter) it can throw a first-year parent into a spiral. Very often, we'll have children playing a game and in the background they might see their child looking up at the sky. And they'll say, I think my son or daughter looks sad.

KAMENETZ: Still, Grabow says over time, most parents see a positive change as their children shift focus from streaming videos online to racing down the hill on a giant soapy Slip 'N Slide.

GRABOW: The girls want to go on the Slip 'N Slide right now. Ladies, are we ready? Let's do this, ladies. If you'll excuse us, we've got to go back to the Slip 'N Slide. Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #4: (Screaming).

KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

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