Social Media, the Internet, and finding campers in 2022
Social media, google adwords, websites and email have become the primary methods of communicating with the camp community year-round, and with parents during the summer. What does it mean for a proudly offline summer experience to rely so heavily on platforms like Instagram to put the comm in community? How does our use of digital tech resonate with what we teach campers and staff?
I’m not sure how many of our campers, staff, and parents read this, I suspect it’s not too many. But of those who do, are you aware that MTC has an Instagram feed that is just a single daily photo of the waterfront at camp? Taken from a fixed camera at the same time of day, it is a simple, beautiful way of keeping camp in the minds of our campers and staff, all year round.
Our 'mtc365' page on Instagram
Maybe you or your camper use Facetime or Zoom to call and chat with camp friends around the world FOR FREE (a shocking development to those of us old enough to have to budget for long distance charges, or take out a small loan to call internationally!). Perhaps you follow our MTC Facebook page to get photo updates during the summer, a marvelously convenient way to keep up to date with what’s happening at camp. Maybe you even read our newsletters, to get updates on camp and links to interesting reading or podcast suggestions for teens or the parents of teens. We haven’t yet ventured into the world of TikTok, but it somehow feels sadly inevitable.
The point it, MTC has quite a large social media, and Internet, footprint. We use social media quite a lot to communicate with our little community, as well as to reach those who might consider joining us next summer. We use our electronic tools to maintain cheap, effective, and convenient communications with parents, staff, and alumni. We are, after all, as small business, and these are the tools a small business uses. But there is a massive amount of cognitive dissonance here.
Camp provides unlimited opportunities to 'disconnect' and find moments of Zen.
I’m sure all of you are aware of at least half a dozen aspects of social media that have been shown to have a detrimental effect on our communities and on individuals. Whether it is the massive damage “fake news” inflicts on democracies or the algorithms that spread it; the detrimental impacts of social media use for adolescent mental health (particularly so for girls ages 11-13 or boys 14-15); or the rush to market of products like the “meta-verse” without adequate child protection tools baked in, there are myriad examples of the dangers of social media poses to young people and the world they live in. And social media is just one aspect of pervasive digital technology. The potential for damage to individuals, particularly young people, seems limitless – online harassment, the addictive qualities built into social media platforms, the impacts on sleep, the developmental concerns around classroom technology. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
For us at MTC, we are torn about camp’s relationship to social media. We see that social media has deep flaws, and the potential to do great harm to young people. And yet, we see the beneficial role social media and other digital platforms play in maintaining the ties that bind our community members to each other. We hear the stories from parents of camp friends separated by time zones and vast distances able to keep up daily conversations, we see photos of friends from widespread cities or even countries meeting up to spend time together. Just this weekend, we got a photo on messenger from a camp alumnus who was meeting with several camp friends from the early 2000’s. Between them, they had 4 babies around the same age. An instant, extremely gratifying hit of cuteness…
And this helps point us to how we can resolve the incongruence between what we understand and observe with rampant use of social media, constant Internet connections and problematic device use; and the community building power that these technological innovations have enabled. How does a camp that proudly creates a device free environment reconcile the use of social media and electronic communications for marketing? By understanding that technology is a tool. By taking the time to be intentional. By understanding the costs that come with the benefits, and making an informed decision as to how to balance those costs. And hopefully, we can achieve a balance that models for our campers (and our staff) that it is worth our while to do the work needed to ensure we are controlling the technology, not vice versa.
This leads us to the core of our tech free policy at MTC. We know that one of the greatest benefits a summer at camp holds is in the lived experience it provides campers. In this case, the lived experience of being tech free, for a few weeks at least. When campers feel relieved of the burden to be checking a phone, feel free to risk failure knowing that failure won’t show up on Tik-Tok, feel mentally and emotionally up to speed after a full day of sunshine and a full night sleep – they are gaining a ton of tech-free lived experience. These campers are then equipped to make an informed decision about their post camp tech use. They understand what the benefits being displaced by technology are. They understand the opportunity cost of their technology use – be it adequate sleep, fulfilling time in nature, rich social interactions, or deep and sustained concentration. They understand, and thus are more likely to make a more intentional choice, about how to use the tools technology provides.
At MTC we are realistic. We know technology brings with a raft of benefits, and that it is not going away. We also know it is problematic, as is any powerful innovation, if not handled deliberately, intentionally, and with full knowledge of the pros and cons. We see our role as providing one of the few remaining spaces in which campers and staff can gain the experience they need to make the choice that works best for them.
A peaceful summers evening at Maine Teen Camp
Matt, from New South Wales, Australia, is a PhD candidate in Public Policy & Educational Leadership at USM, with a research interest in the educational benefits of outdoor experience, serves as a board member of Maine Summer Camps (www.mainecamps.org), and is serving a three-year term on the Falmouth School Board. He has also served on the Education Investment Committee at the United Way of Greater Portland.