No Rewiring Here

I want to take a moment to discuss something I mentioned a few days ago— the notion that play is important at Rockbrook. In an earlier post, I described how activities at camp stress being playful (noncompetitive), how the culture of camp encourages friendly (kind and silly) relationships that promote play and community, and how the structure of our daily schedule provides significant blocks of free time for self-directed play. I also hinted that play is so fundamental to childhood, we risk our kid’s successful development if we don’t provide play as a regular part of their lives.

A new book by Jonathan Haidt makes this point by linking kids’ play and their mental well-being. The book is The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (March, 2024). Haidt is a professor at NYU-Stern and is known for his 2018 best-selling book, The Coddling of the American Mind where he first notes the international trend of rising anxiety and depression among young people. In this new book, he digs deeper into this phenomenon and asks why it is happening.

He asks why, since 2010, have we seen in the U.S the prevalence of teen anxiety increase 134%, depression increase 106%, ADHD up 72%, Anorexia up %100? Why do these increases skew toward Gen Z (those born between the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2010s) and away from those who are older? His thesis is in the title of the book. He claims that around 2010 we began a “great rewiring of childhood.” More specifically, this is when we, rather thoughtlessly, began moving away from a “play-based childhood” and toward a “phone-based childhood.”

Haidt points to several reasons for the decline of play among children. We have fewer communal spaces for kids. We spend most of our time isolated from other families, in our cars, in our homes. Parenting has become more paranoid as adults trust each other less, harbor (mostly unfounded) worries of abduction, and avoid the uncomfortable and risky aspects of the natural world. This “safetyism” has led us to spend most of our time inside and away from others. Consequently, most Gen-Z young people are having less “life experience,” things like getting a drivers license, having an after-school job, or even a dating relationship. For both parents and kids, a defensive mindset that’s always scanning for dangers is undermining (“destroying”?) our ability to play.

Unfortunately (“tragically”?), there is a ready substitute for play: the smartphone. As I’m sure you know, for most people today, a smartphone is their constant companion —never going anywhere without it— providing ready entertainment at the slightest hint of boredom. Instead of hanging out with friends and doing something together in the real world, our kids are more likely scrolling through social media, playing video games, or watching videos online alone. They’re spending, on average, 7-9 hours per day online, in many cases disrupting their sleep. Grabbing your phone is always easier and “safer” than doing something real with other people, but has our desire for convenience and safety narrowed our kid’s lives to what’s available on a screen?

The consequences of this behavior (“addiction”?) is certainly a worthwhile topic on its own, and there are others who are working to better understand how this phone-based childhood is affecting our developing young people. But Haidt believes it’s making a whole generation of young people more anxious, nervous, and ultimately unhappy. It at least seems clear that, especially for kids and perhaps us adults too, there is opportunity cost whenever we choose to pick up our phones. We could be playing!

Our kids could be exposed to the marvelous wonders of nature. They could be overcoming simple fears— which, by the way, means taking simple risks… like trying a new activity, or sampling a new food, or meeting a stranger. They could be making things, imagining, exploring, discovering what they’ve never experienced before. They could be laughing with friends, helping each other, teaming up to be even greater than they thought possible. They could be dressing up and being silly, singing and dancing, leaping at every chance to feel emotions. They could be finding out more about who they really are and becoming more confident expressing it. They could be having a lot more fun. You can see, moving away from a play-based childhood takes away a lot… All these and more!

There’s a question about what is worse, and what is contributing most to the rise of an “anxious generation.” Is it the decline of free play, and the benefits associated with play. Or is it the rise of time online (social media and screentime) and the costs associated with that? One thing seems certain, and this is Haidt’s main point, it’s a terrible trade to make, the benefits of one for the costs of the other. But that’s where we find ourselves these days, and our kids are suffering for it.

Fortunately, we have camp, the quintessential play-based environment. We have a place like Rockbrook that ditches devices and gets kids back outside, back in the real world doing things. We have a place that’s all about self-directed play and the glorious unpredictability of that. Yes, it’s a place where we might get a scrape or a bruise, but we’re going to do it with people who care about us. And we’ll be alright. We’re going to be stronger, more excited about things generally, and more attuned to what might be possible if we try. We’re going to grow closer to the people around us, not shrink away, afraid of what might happen. We’ll learn that being playful makes life more fun, rich with amazing details. Camp is powerful like this! And that’s why we all love it.

wide-eyed-laughter on rafting trip

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  1. Avatar for Michael Brooke
    Michael Brooke
    1 month ago

    Excellent post! I teach high school and starting next year at our school we are going phone free from arrival at school until dismissal bell. I cannot wait! Haidt’s book was a major driver in this policy change. I read it and immediately bought copies for admins and the school board.

    Thank you for keeping Rockbrook free from technology. It has its time and place, but summer camp is not it.

  2. Avatar for Jeff Carter
    Jeff Carter
    1 month ago

    Thanks Michael. Good work getting your school to adopt a phone-free policy! I’ve yet to hear a good argument for how smartphones enhance the learning that a school values. And thank you for your support of camp.

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