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Summer Camp in the Digital Age Propels Some Parents Into Neurotic Overdrive

In my socially cloistered youth, I assumed that summer camp—especially the sleep-away kind for at least a month’s duration—was the norm for children and teens. In time, I realized that most summer camps were like most private schools—a norm for children of privilege.

My parents were quite keen on having their own summer vacations, so my sisters and I were packed off with cheerful assurances that we would love sleep-away camp. We did, on the whole. I assumed my own two children would love camp too, but they hated it, and not without reason.

In both cases, they had bad experiences we should have known about immediately, but didn’t, because it was not then the custom for camps to communicate with parents regarding their children unless there was what they considered a compelling reason.

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My son was prone to asthmatic attacks, which of course the camp staff were aware of. But when, just a few days in, he suffered quite a severe one, they let him languish in the camp infirmary, with no visitors, for more than 24 hours before they realized he needed more medical attention than they could provide. We only knew about his condition when he had already been transported to a Laurentian hospital for oxygen support. We were incredulous—this obviously was a compelling reason for them to inform us—and then furious at their insouciance. He begged to go home, and home he went, never to return.

In my daughter’s case, we sent her to the same camp as her cousin, an experienced camper, with the proviso, agreed to by the director, that she would be placed in her cousin’s cabin, so she would have a social anchor. It was only when we received her first letter a full week later (mail was sent out twice a week) that we were aware that she had been put into another cabin of socially precocious girls who had been together for years. She was the odd girl out, and was made to feel it. She was miserable. The director showed no remorse. We brought her home.

Neither of these situations is conceivable today. At the time, we had no recourse other than to write a strongly-worded letter to the director, expressing our indignation. It’s not the sort of thing you launch a lawsuit over. Today, we would not have felt so disempowered. We would have posted our stories on the camps’ Facebook pages, an embarrassment and possibly worse for their directors.

Be careful what you wish for. Advanced communication tools give with one hand and take away with another. It is true that summer camps in the contemporary era would not dream of withholding the kind of information from parents they did in my day, but the trend to greater transparency and parental inclusion has empowered some parents with “helicopter” tendencies into neurotic overdrive.

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, it has become the fashion for summer camps to post a constant stream of photos taken during activities, meals, and assemblies to reassure parents that not only are their children alive and well, but that they are “having fun” every livelong minute of the day. The parents scrutinize these fleeting captures like fortune tellers reading tea leaves. Are their kids socially engaged? Are they smiling? “Anything less – a child walking alone or caught in a neutral expression – triggers questions and deep analysis,” WSJ said.

One mother told WSJ, “It’s an addiction.” Every morning Stacy Johnson scrolls through “hundreds” of photos from a Pennyslvania camp in the Poconos. What parents see is often subjectively interpreted. Brooklyn mom Dayna Solomon saw her 13-year old son in a photo of him walking under a bridge of other campers’ outstretched arms. “He doesn’t look thrilled,” she texted her husband, Seth. “You’re nuts,” Seth replied. “He looks focused.”

Heidi Green, a professional photographer and mom of two campers, created the Instagram account Spot My Kid. She described her followers to WSJ as “crazy camp parents who stalk, overanalyze and treasure every single sighting.” Including herself: “We’re so desperate for a sign of life” that she’ll “zoom in [on the photos] 100 times to see them.”

Seeing a child standing alone, unsmiling, can trigger panic in some parents. Stacy Fleischman, director of business development at Camp Specialists, a service matching children with camps, has to deal with such clients. “[The photos] can make a parent who isn’t anxious become anxious,” she said.

Tyler Hill Camp in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, employs professional photographers and videographers to document campers’ experience. Every group has its own Instagram account. To keep up with demand, the camp tries to capture at least two photos of every camper every day. The camp’s opening day got about 500,000 views. Tyler Hill’s co-owner Wendy Siegel told WSJ: “We live in a different world. Kids coming to camp today are connected to their parents 24/7. All of a sudden that stops and they have an insatiable appetite for knowing what’s going on.”

Siegel also provided examples of responses she receives to the photos she receives from parents, such as, “My son isn’t smiling. Please go back and take another of him smiling,” and “Why is my son standing on the outskirts of the group? Do those boys not like him?” The parents are happy that their children must part ways with technology during their stay—this is probably the single most positive feature common to all summer camps—but “many” parents guiltlessly turn to apps like Campanion and its clones, which use facial recognition to alert parents to a photo of their child. Campanion wasn’t designed for this use, but, according to the app’s CEO, photo tagging was a natural evolution, “giving parents a way to more closely share the camp experience.”

No, no, this is all wrong. My parents had it mostly right. Camp wasn’t for “sharing”: it was an opportunity for us to taste independence, and for them to step away from their 24/7 parenting roles, using the gift of time alone to reconnect as untethered adults with each other and friends. It was a healthy win-win for parents and kids. My own kids’ experiences demonstrate the deficits of too much disengagement.

But surely there’s a happy medium. What is it about us humans that the formerly disempowered can never be happy with mere empowerment, but must always reach for what seems like super-empowerment? In this case, super-empowerment has turned out to be a digital servitude that eats up time and generates stress, but for no discernible benefit to anyone.