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A Screen-Free Summer Helps Kids Develop Deeper Friendships

Every year it gets more challenging to wrestle kids away from their screens. The pandemic only exacerbated the problem. While parents were busy working from home, many kids were left to their own devices, quite literally, spending even more time on smartphones to stay connected to their social groups. But as multiple studies have demonstrated, spending too much time on social media can be a recipe for depression and anxiety among pre-teens and teens.

One of the great, unforeseen perks of sleepaway camp is the fact that we take devices out of the equation for almost two months, freeing up time for the great outdoors. But unplugging kids from their screens has another hidden benefit: it seems to boost children’s empathy, too.

recent study compared two groups of 11-year-old boys and girls from various socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Both used screens in similar ways, texting friends, playing video games, and streaming shows. One group went to a sleepaway camp for five days without their electronic devices, and one group stayed at home with their screens.

The two groups were each given a test (the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Behavior) that measures one’s ability to read emotional cues – first on the Monday and again that Friday. Unsurprisingly, the kids who attended a sleepaway camp without their screens scored higher than the kids who stayed home. And that was just after five days! Imagine how much a child will grow and mature when they get immersed in nature and human interactions for three, four or seven weeks!

The study is one of many that shows how smartphones have affected our ability to focus on the people right in front of us. Even when we’re not actively on our phone, the devices still alert us with notifications and chimes, nudging us to pay attention to something else.

Sleepaway camp shows kids what it is like to be with one another – and by themselves– in real, uninterrupted time.

“If you can’t be alone with your own thoughts [ever], you can’t really hear what others have to say because you need them to support your fragile sense of self,” Shelly Turkle, MIT professor and author of Reclaiming Conversation once said in an interview. “True empathy requires the capacity for solitude.”

Not being able to check in constantly with people far away – parents or friends – enables campers to make deeper connections and friendships with the people they are with, and to trust their own instincts more. It is a precious gift we give each of our campers every summer.

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