Consequences for Confidence

The other day a father said to me that the break from technology use, particularly the break from “being on a smartphone,” that camp provides is “one of the best things about it.” While I was sympathetic, as I think most parents are these days —all of us wishing our kids weren’t so tightly tethered to their phones— I was surprised this dad had singled out this camp policy as a benefit. It’s odd that there’s something many of our kids use everyday during the school year, that when taken away, it’s considered a good thing.

archery bullseye target

Why Rockbrook prohibits smartphones at camp is obvious in some ways. We want girls to focus on camp, not be concerned about what’s going on otherwise. For example, being able to communicate with friends and family “back home” could lead to more severe bouts of homesickness.  For many, the allure of their smartphone would be a distraction from, if not a serious impediment to, all that camp has to offer. Camp life means bodily inter-action with real friends, stimulating exploration of the natural world, the challenges and rewards of living in a close-knit community. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this is the opposite of the virtual, filtered and idealized world portrayed on our tiny screens.

But I think this dad was implying something more serious. Perhaps he was expressing the hunch many of us share, namely that our smartphone use is causing personal damage, something like smoking was for a previous generation. There are consequences lurking among the conveniences.

climbing tower kid

We’ve already seen this argument being made, that smartphone use, particularly among adolescents, is a public health concern. For example, Professor Jean M. Twenge has attributed the high rate of teenage depression and suicide, anxiety, unhappiness and loneliness to current smartphone trends— particularly as social media has become a substitute for face-to-face socializing. I wrote about this last summer.

OK, but there’s something else, another reason why putting down their smartphones, taking a break from the flicker of social media and Internet entertainment, is a good thing. And it’s because there’s another more subtle, and therefore more insidious, consequence to their use. It’s this:

a significant weakening of self confidence.

I believe too much time residing in the virtual world of the Internet, ingesting the narrowness of social media posts, relying exclusively on passive electronic entertainment, and limiting one’s knowledge of the world to what’s been edited, photoshopped, or curated according to unspoken biases, are habits that sow feelings of doubt, inadequacy, and often anxiety. There’s an inherent distortion to what is learned from these sources that make one’s personal abilities, possessions, even appearance seemed flawed or deficient. I think there’s real power here, and over time, who we are can be shaken and our confidence undermined.

girl at needle point class

For young people who are at a critical time in their lives when they are developing a sense of self, I think the negative effects can be even more severe. Using your phone can too easily be a crutch, an escape from challenges, a constant lifeline effectively crippling one’s sense of independence.  You can see why using this technology can become a habit; it’s what comforts you when things get tough, and while that may satisfy, it can likewise create further anxiety that deep down you aren’t capable. This seems to me to be a dreadful consequence.

So yes, it is an important benefit to camp life. Ditching technology not only allows our campers to focus on camp, to boost their independence living away from home, and to engage the real world and real friends, it also gives them a break from the confidence killing forces that come with smartphone use. Camp life boosts girls’ confidence, and excluding technology is an important part of that process.

All of this makes me wonder what we should be doing the rest of the year when the communication benefits of smartphones are too important to give up. There seems to be no choice but to accept the negative consequences that come with the technology. At the very least, if we recognize those consequences, we might protect our children when they are most vulnerable by limiting their access to smartphones, and providing them more camp-like experiences.  We know why camp is great. Let’s do more of that.

after swimming at camp

An Unburdening

It’s sometimes difficult to describe life at camp, to convey how the girls at Rockbrook feel about the experience overall. They’ll tell you they are having fun, or they’ll say things like, “I love camp!” or “This is great!” But what are some of the emotions that go along with it? What are the campers feeling while they’re here?

Seeing all the smiles and hearing so much laughter, “happiness” is the first feeling to notice. There’s obviously so much joy and exuberance percolating up throughout the day at camp— screaming with delight while flying by on the zip line, laughing so hard at a skit you’re rolling around on the floor, smiling from the string of friendly greetings that seems to follow you everywhere. Yes, the girls here are happy, and we could say at times “excited,” “thrilled,” or “elated.” Of course, there are challenging emotions now and then too, bugs that bother. A camper might feel frustrated, for example when she misses the target in archery, or even angry when there’s a disagreement with another girl in her cabin. These are all common and expected emotional responses to life in the camp community.

girls making a tie dye at camp
camp archery girl pose
camp cabin winners

There’s another word, perhaps a little surprising, that describes a general feeling at camp: unburdened. It’s a feeling of freedom, in many ways, a welcome relief from the pressures, limitations, and expectations kids bend to throughout their ordinary lives. Put differently, I think modern life is burdensome for kids in specific ways that camp life addresses. How we live at Rockbrook— mostly outside, free from technology, as members of an accepting community, active and engaged, but with free time to explore the world and who we truly are as individuals —is in this way unburdening.

Think about what’s happening at camp, and how it differs from your daughter’s ordinary experience.

  1. At camp, we ditch technology. Here, instead of diminishing, and flattening experience, our communications are unfiltered, personal, and face to real face.
  2. We have plenty of free time throughout the day to play, explore, create and rest. Here at camp, our schedule is always built with flexibility and openness.
  3. Camp lets us avoid social pressures to “be” (look and act) a certain way. Here, girls can be who they really are, their authentic selves, because they feel genuinely accepted and included no matter what.
  4. At Rockbrook, we put aside competition and find ways to cooperate and support one another. Games are for the intrinsic fun of it rather than to determine a winner.
  5. We’re outside most of the day, closer to the wonders of nature, and free from the constraints of regular automobile travel and being indoors.
  6. Camp is also full of action. We’re doing things all day long, not sitting still at a desk or being passively entertained.
  7. And we’re never alone. Camp life is immersed in kindness and caring, inseparable from the positive relationships (so many friends!) that comprise our community.

Can you see how each of these aspects of camp life contrast with specific burdens our kids face ordinarily? Kids these days endure a lot, admittedly for often good reasons, but I also believe they benefit from being unburdened in these ways at camp. (Life at camp certainly includes its own set of challenges, and yes burdens, but that’s a topic for another post!)

The girls at Rockbrook may not use the word, but they certainly feel it. I asked a few campers today if they felt “unburdened” in any way at camp and they all enthusiastically said, “Yes!” That feeling of “aahh, I feel good” could be the loosening of pressures, lifting the weight of competition, dissolving the cloudy film cast by technology, the opening of the self usually kept under wraps. Life at camp elicits these feelings, and it does feel really good. In fact, we might say it’s the perfect context for a really great time.

Let’s just add this notion of unburdening to the many reasons why girls love camp. OK?

archery camp girls

A Book of Faces

Camp girls faces buddies

A Middler-aged camper asked me the other day, “Isn’t it hard to get Seniors to come to camp if they can’t have their phones?” I reminded her that all campers, no matter how old they are, and in fact the counselors too (except in the staff lounge), are not allowed to have a cellphone at camp, but I think I know what she meant. She knew, maybe from experience or observing older girls at home, that cellphone use is almost constant, that most of us, once we have a personal smartphone, tend to use it all the time… text messages, social media posts (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat!), telephone calls, and email. Once it’s in our pocket, the buzz of electronic notifications punctuates our daily experience. This perceptive young girl was suggesting that the allure of that buzz might be powerful enough to prevent girls from attending camp.

It’s a great question when you think about it, “Why are teenage girls willing, albeit reluctantly perhaps, to give up their phones for several weeks?” Would you be willing to do that? Think of all the news you would miss, and the people who couldn’t contact you! I suppose there are young girls out there who do not attend summer camp because they feel they simply can’t live without their phones, just as they might believe they can’t do without their mother’s home-cooked meals or an air-conditioned private bedroom, but there are hundreds of girls who do make that sacrifice. Here’s why. I believe it’s because they, perhaps unconsciously, know being at camp is much better than whatever their cellphones (and other electronic forms of entertainment) provide. The sacrifice is “worth it.” Their community of Rockbrook friends provides a book of faces far superior to Facebook. The daily flood of enthusiasm for creativity, adventure, and outdoor action outshines every Instagram image. The camp songs, the heartfelt conversations, the nightly “Highs, Lows and Funnies” in the cabins, the cheers and support from everyone around you arrive faster than you can type 140-character tweets. A girl could snap, and pin, and “like,” and “share,” all day long and she wouldn’t come close to feeling the authentic joy camp provides. Without flickering intermediaries, camp is real life, fully lived with real people, expressing real emotions. It’s a life too easily forgotten while staring at a screen, but for those girls willing to trust themselves and find the confidence to engage those around them, camp is also a really good life. Some claim it can’t be beat! …completely phone-free.

Whitewater Rafting Camp
Sliding Rock smiling girls

For about a fourth of the camp, today’s adventures included whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. With our second group of July Mini session girls eager to raft and a few of the full session campers who had not yet gone, we put together two multi-raft trips, one that began the night before with camping at our outpost property located near the river in Swain County, and the other that ran in the afternoon following a picnic lunch at the water’s edge. The morning trip saw a little extra excitement as a passing thunderstorm forced the crew off the river for a few minutes. Fortunately, we had a warm, dry bus (It was trailing the trip on the road paralleling the river.) ready nearby where we could all take shelter during the storm. When the coast was clear, the rafts were off again to finish paddling the river.

Rafting for Rockbrook girls is big fun. It’s a nice combination of high adrenaline adventure (wearing cool gear!), lighthearted silliness with your friends in the raft, and hilarity as each bumpy rapid and splash of the frigid water (53 degrees!) erupts wild screams of delight. It’s even better when someone unexpectedly falls out of the boat and everyone, while laughing of course, scrambles to pull her back in. Rafting is also a chance for the girls to chat and sing with each other as they paddle, posing for photos and greeting everyone passing by in other boats and onshore. You can imagine how this much exuberance gets people’s attention, and since we’re the only girls camp authorized to raft the Nantahala (We’ve had a USFS permit since the early 1980s), it’s not uncommon for us to hear, “That’s the rafting camp.”

When it comes to having a full camp day, our mini session Senior campers know how to do it! For them, following today’s rafting, we ate a quick pizza dinner, and then turned right around for an evening trip to Sliding Rock. It was fantastic. We arrived just after another rainstorm so we had the rock all to ourselves. The girls had a blast sliding down the 60-foot natural water slide to the pool at the bottom, often with hands in the air and screaming all the way down. Everyone slid as many times as they wanted, until as it was getting dark, we loaded up the vans for a short ride to Dolly’s Dairy Bar. A cup or a cone of “Rockbrook Chocolate Illusion” or another flavor was the perfect way to top off the evening. Back at camp about 10pm, the girls took no time heading straight to bed. It’s been another full— definitely great— camp day.

Ice Cream Camp Girls