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Unplugged – Digital health and summer camp

A new report from the Pew Research Center reveals the staggering amount of time young people spend online. It states that today almost half (45 percent) of 13- to 17-year-olds say they are online on a “near-constant basis,” essentially doubling the number from a Pew measure in 2014-2015. And a lot of that time is on social media.

No surprise there.

Just over half of teens (51 percent) use Facebook, with larger numbers connecting through YouTube (85 percent), Instagram (72 percent) and Snapchat (69 percent).

Is that a bad thing? It depends on whom you ask.

Among teens themselves, the verdict is mixed. In the article “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018,” Pew authors Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang cite conflicting views. They offer that 31 percent of young people surveyed cited mostly positive effects (such as connectivity with others) while 24 percent cite a negative effect (including bullying). The following is some of the youth narrative presented in the piece (Anderson and Jiang, 2018):

  • “[Social media] allows us to communicate freely and see what everyone else is doing. [It] gives us a voice that can reach many people.” (Boy, age 15)
  • “We can connect easier with people from different places and we are more likely to ask for help through social media which can save people.” (Girl, age 15)
  • “Gives people a bigger audience to speak and teach hate and belittle each other.” (Boy, age 13)
  • “People can say whatever they want with anonymity and I think that has a negative impact.” (Boy, age 15)

As with many things parent and teen, there appears to be a disconnect – or reality gap – between what Mom or Dad think their children are doing and what the kids themselves report they’re doing. To wit, an April 2018 TIMEmagazine story says, “One survey of parents and children noted that parents allow access to the Internet on average when their child is three years old. Moreover, children spend twice as much time online as their parents believe. Despite the wealth of parental control apps for phones and other digital devices … children can often get around whatever digital parental control limits have been installed and can witness self-harm, porn, clinical problems such as eating disorders, and many things that they themselves regard as disturbing” (Kazdin, 2018).

The article’s author, Alan Kazdin, calls this a “perfect storm,” adding “Children have open access to digital media and do all they say they do, while parents believe that there is no problem or that things are under control.”

It is increasingly clear that much of this screen time is spent on smartphones, with the Pew data pointing to the fact that 95 percent of young people have, or have access to, a smartphone.

Sadly, the damage inflicted by this online behavior may far surpass witnessing disturbing images or being the subject of rumors and gossip.

A November 2017 article posted by “The Conversation” maps the proliferation of smartphones with a precipitous rise in youth mental health disorders. Author Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, says, “Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

“In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent” (Twenge, 2017).

Twenge goes on to cite a paper she published with colleagues in Clinical Psychological Science directly linking smartphone use with mental illness in youth. It states, “Adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on nonscreen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely. Since 2010, iGen adolescents have spent more time on new media screen activities and less time on nonscreen activities, which may account for the increases in depression and suicide. In contrast, cyclical economic factors such as unemployment and the Dow Jones Index were not linked to depressive symptoms or suicide rates when matched by year” (Twenge et al, 2018).

So widespread is this problem that none other than Apple last week announced new apps designed to curb smartphone addiction (Tsukayama, 2018).

They can’t come a moment too soon.

What else can be done to solve this looming and growing problem?

The TIME piece recommends that parents try the following (Kazdin, 2018):

  • Limit (and monitor) screen time
  • Assume your child is skilled at bypassing any controls you may put in place
  • Spend time together onscreen and off
  • Model behavior you want to see

Another idea is to send them to summer camp to enjoy being away from the pressures of home and school, focusing on themselves and others … sans screen time!

Indeed, in my 2016 HuffPost piece “An Untethered Mind” I reminded parents, “While the academic year holds ample opportunity for what are commonly referred to as ‘the three R’s’ of reading, writing and arithmetic, time at a summer camp offers different – and unique – experiential learning opportunities for children and teens. In fact, it’s a perfect breeding ground for three other R’s too often lost in our fast-paced, always-on, hyperconnected world: recharging, reconnecting and reflecting. Each is important for young minds!

“This summer, camps across the country are providing a remedy to the addiction that is the overreliance on technology. How? By stressing real relationships in real time and an almost singular focus on community, which, by and large, does not typically permit broad access to technology by the campers” (Wallace, 2016).

That same year, National Public Radio’s Tovia Smith produced an “All Things Considered” segment (and blog post) about visiting with teens at a New England summer camp. She began, “Part of the experience of summer sleep-away camp is missing loved ones. And for many kids these days, that means longing for their beloved…cell phones.

“Most camps ban them, including Cape Cod Sea Camps, in Brewster, Mass. On opening day, the long driveway into camp is lined with signs welcoming campers, and warning them, ‘Send your last Snapchat’ and ‘Last chance to send a text!’” (Smith, 2016).

Smith heard from these boys and girls what she expected: it was really hard to walk away from instant access to friends (one of the kids said he would experience phantom vibrations in his pocket, thinking he was receiving a text) and too easy to suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) because of a lack of connection to friends at home. What surprised her was how quickly the teens said not only that they adjusted but also how much they enjoyed just focusing on camp friends and camp life without the distraction of smartphones.

Maybe there is hope after all. And maybe youth digital health can be enhanced by unplugging at a camp this summer.

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