WebCams at Summer Camp – An Investigation – 2007

Yesterday, a parent asked me whether I thought it was a “red flag” that her son’s camp didn’t have a webcam on site. (Presumably, this webcam would be used to broadcast a live feed of camp activity from the camp to parents’ home or office computers.)

“In what way are you concerned about the absence of a webcam?” I asked. “Well, it’s just that I wonder what’s going on that they don’t want to show me.” Jeepers. Like what?

Flashback to a recent disturbing article by Jeff Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal entitled Avoiding Kids: How Men Cope with Being Cast as Predators. Zaslow lamented the growing paranoia in American society that has parents frantically calling directors of day care centers demanding to know why their child was sitting on a man’s lap…only to learn that the man was not some pervert, but a father of one of the other children (also on his lap) and that he had been reading them all a story in plain view.

Zaslow quotes Frank McEnulty, a builder in Long Beach, California who was once a Boy Scout scoutmaster. “Today, I wouldn’t do that job for anything,” he said. “All it takes is for one kid to get ticked off at you for something and tell his parents you were acting weird on the campout.” Jeepers again.

Back to the “red flag” question.

Although I’m certain that webcams are not the answer to predator paranoia, her question was the wrong question to ask about any piece of electronic technology at camp. I don’t know whether something is a red flag or not until I’ve heard the answer to a better question: What is the camp’s mission?

For years (OK, only since 2005) I’ve been advocating that a camp’s adoption of any electronic technology should be congruent with its mission. New technologies can be seductive, but unless their introduction helps promote the camp’s outcomes, they are unnecessary. Certain electronic technologies may even erode a camp’s mission. (See The Digital Umbilical for a longer discussion on this topic.)

So before I answered this parent’s query with a knee-jerk condemnation such as, “Camp is about fresh air and friends, not about computers!” or a sensational conviction such as, “Oh my gosh! They don’t have a webcam! That’s absurd! Pull your child out of that camp immediately! Just imagine what could be going on!” I simply asked this parent, “What is this camp’s mission?”

Her reply: A blank stare.

A blank stare? What?! Is camp free now? Are children disposable? Did I miss something while I was away at camp this summer? Or are we still stuck in the 1880s believing that camp is just a place to have fun; that there’s no real learning or development that happens at camp?

But lo and behold! Even in the 1800s camp directors understood that camps served an essential educational function, one complementary to the classroom, but unique in important ways.

Yes, camp is fun, but it also provides community living, away from home, in an outdoor recreational setting. Nothing else provides that.

So it’s no surprise that camps accelerate children’s development in ways that school and home do not. (See ACA — Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience — Directions to learn more about the American Camp Association’s groundbreaking research in this area.) For most children at most camps, their experience promotes social skills, independence, healthy risk taking, and self-esteem.

“Well,” I began hesitantly, “if you’re not sure what the camp is trying to do with your son, then I can’t say whether a webcam is a good thing or not.” Another blank stare. (I’m a psychologist, so I have graduate training in responding to these kinds of blank stares.)

“What would you like to have happen to your son after a few weeks at camp?” I asked.

No more blank stares, but a twinkle in her eye. Most parents know what they want for their children. (They just don’t always know what other people—like camp directors—want for their children.)

“I want him be more confident. I want him to learn to cope with a little homesickness and learn to be independent. It’s good for him to be away from home a bit…away from me and his dad. I want him to learn that he can solve problems on his own. And I want him to make friends…maybe some who are different from his friends at home. Of course, I also want him to have fun. To get better at basketball To make some memories that will carry him through the school year.”

Now we were getting somewhere.

“In what ways might a live Internet feed of his activities at camp promote or retard his progress gaining independence, social skills, and self-esteem?” I asked.

A knowing, sincere, and slightly sheepish smile bloomed on her face. Here was my chance to editorialize a bit. I started with the obvious.

“If you’ve selected a high-quality camp, you need not worry that they have something to hide. Quite the opposite. Any camp that’s done their homework by outlining their desired outcomes, writing a mission statement, and structuring their program to deliver those outcomes, will advertise that fact.

Such camps don’t need a webcam to prove or disprove anything through a live broadcast of events. Moreover, camp directors don’t want the liability of having a puerile camper moon the camera, to say nothing of parents’ anxieties about having their child’s naked backside on the world wide web.”

Another knowing smile and slightly furrowed brow gave me time to conclude:

“Webcams broadcast events, but what we really want is for children to create a narrative of their experience, though reflection, writing, and interaction. When they create a narrative, it deepens their understanding and allows them to share their impressions and analysis. We don’t really want to see camp happening, we want to understand what happened to our child because of camp. For this reason alone, I think families should select camps without webcams.”

At a high quality camp, parents need not be concerned about what might be going on that they can’t see. Instead, they should celebrate the fact that they can’t see any of what’s going on. The fact that their children are having an experience all their own is what makes camp the most fertile ground for positive youth development. Don’t worry, you’ll hear all about it in letters, postcards, and the ten months that follow camp. Best of all, you’ll see camp through your child’s eyes, not through a webcam’s lens.