When we think of using cell phones at camp, we get an image of some camper being never present—snapchatting a friend instead of taking part in archery, hiking, swimming or the dozens of other hands-on activities right in front of them.
But what happens when the person holding the cell phone is staff?
“The staff feel the same way the campers do, they get very anxious,” says Rachel Fox, program director for the Mandel JCC at Palm Beach Gardens in Florida, where she directs Camp Shalom.
“I do too, if I forget my phone for the day, I’m completely thrown off. As a society everyone feels they have to be connected to their phones, it’s hard for the staff, the campers, the parents—everyone.”
That hasn’t prevented Camp Shalom from coming up with a pretty strict policy: No phones in the day. Period. Not even for keeping track of the time. “We politely tell them to go buy a watch,” Fox says of instructing the counselors who will lead camp each summer.
The camp also has a social media policy that works hand-in-glove. Counselors cannot add camp parents as friends during the summer. No posting photos from camp from phones. Not posting photos of campers. Period.
“There are some good arguments for not having cell phones around, but there are also some good reasons for having them.”
“I’d tell my staff—because I do carry my phone around, and I know that’s a double standard—any time they can challenge me. But I’m emailing a parent or texting one, or doing something on the camp’s Facebook page, not mine,” Fox says. “If they can call me out, I’ll give them a $25 gift certificate.”
On the other hand, her travel camp for teens in sixth through eighth grades, allows phone use on the bus for one hour each day. “When I went away to camp, that would have been unheard of,” she says.
For better and worse, technology has altered how camps tackle the topic of communicating in and about camp. As Fox points out, she can return to her office before carpool pickup has ended, and she’ll have dozens of emails and texts waiting from parents about . . . carpool pickup.
And so, camps have a need to develop policies that come to terms with the reality of instant communication and immediate gratification. In an era of constant connections, someone inevitably has to remain connected.
“There are some good arguments for not having cell phones around, but there are also some good reasons for having them,” says Aaron Greenberg, JCC Association’s senior consultant for day camp initiatives. “What happens if a kid gets hurt on the playground while a counselor is looking at his phone,” Greenberg posits. “Do you want counselors taking pictures of kids? Can you post to Facebook when you’re supposed to be taking care of children? No.”
Establishing a policy and setting expectations is critical, Greenberg notes. Making sure counselors understand it, even more so. “Some directors don’t explain why, they don’t say you can’t interact with kids and be fully present.”
Every camp he’s aware of has internet and social media rules. Counselors need to understand that if their employers and colleges can look them up on Facebook, so can parents, who will, the minute they know which counselor has been assigned to their child.
On the flip side, Greenberg notes that cell phones make communicating with various groups across camp and with parents much easier to notify them of approaching bad weather, bus delays and other things that require timeliness. And there are times when you want your counselors posting to Facebook, as well.
“Do you want a counselor posting on Facebook something like, ‘I’m so excited to be starting camp this summer and to see all of our campers checking into the JCC,’ after the first day? You bet!”
For Mitch Morgan, executive director of Pinemere Camp, location solves many an overnight camp’s concerns with the issue.
“We’re a little further away from cities, in more remote areas,” he says. “I’m talking to you from my bunk with a cell phone booster,” he says. “If not, we wouldn’t be talking. A cell phone, it’s not a useful tool where we are.”
That said, he still doesn’t want counselors trying to be on their technology when they should be paying attention to campers. The camp has a screen-free policy for both campers and staff, who can use their phones only in the staff-only areas at certain times.
“Everyone is addicted to their phones,” he says. “But most people, after being away from it, they’re thankful to have the opportunity to unplug.”
As for that $25 challenge that Fox issues each year?
“There’s always one smart-aleck 16-year-old who tries,” she says. “It’s hard to discipline yourself. But they haven’t caught me yet.”