By Tom Holland EBS Contributor
Each summer in my line of work, we conduct an important experiment in adolescent behavior. This experiment is not based on the fact that we bring students from all over the country together for multiple weeks, put them in the middle of our nation’s best natural ecosystems, and offer them the opportunity to experience great outdoor adventures. No, for them, that’s usually the easy part. The experiment, for kids—and sometimes for their parents—starts when they arrive and we take away their electronics for the duration of the trip.
Everyone who comes to our program knows this moment will happen. Our students are aware they will live in the outdoors, in an electronics-free environment, for their whole adventure. Their parents, too, have been informed of this, and we work with them to provide updates throughout the journey. Still, the experiment is an interesting one.
Some make the transition seamlessly. Others feel a sense of loss during the first few days as they try to understand how to communicate with those around them. They approach their new friends with apprehension and struggle without the glow of a screen to hide behind. Still others, too nervous about life without a screen, do not make the transition at all. They circumvent the rules as they have packed a secondary device (sometimes supplied by parents), to maintain their “connection” with the world.
Why is this rule even necessary? Why is it a part of who we are as an organization? It’s because as a society, we often struggle to find a healthy balance with our electronics. We let them rule our lives instead of serve as a tool for our lives—and this often extends to our children. While I long for the days of the rotary telephone and the U.S. Postal Service, I fully understand that the connected world has the potential of informing us in a greater way and bringing us closer together. Still, we are at the dawn of our connectivity. We are still sorting out the implications of being too connected, or not connected enough.
Consequently, we have established electronics-free programs so we can help our students realize how to balance their lives with electronic devices. We do not seek to eliminate them, as we know that is unrealistic. However, we embrace the opportunity to educate our students in the great outdoors without the distraction of a screen. Here, in nature, our kids learn to connect with themselves, others and the environment without their connection to Siri. In these moments, they are forming positive habits for the future and a great sense of self-confidence as they learn to trust their own decision making.
In addition to modeling appropriate behavior with our own devices, we help campers manage the transition by providing physical games and conversation topics to get their bodies and brains moving. Since some campers develop anxiety about special moments that are unrecorded by their devices, we urge them to recognize and share those moments when they happen and journal about them.
It astonishes many adults that children aged 5 to 16 spend more than six hours per day in front of a screen on average. Additionally, more and more children are spending time indoors with their screen rather than in the outdoors. Gone are the days of sandlot baseball, fort building and neighborhood bike rides. But this should not be that shocking for us as adults, because we are modeling the same behavior. The average American spends over 12 hours connected to a device and less time getting back to nature. With these stats, it’s clear we have not figured out how much screen time is too much, and how decreased time in nature is detrimental.
One result of this imbalance is that historically “electronics free” spaces like our nation’s most pristine ecosystems leave people feeling anxious and disconnected. In the future, many of these pristine areas may become connected. People deep in the backcountry of Yellowstone could have cell and data service—and that could be a good thing for safety emergencies.
Despite this benefit, we believe that our sacred outdoor public spaces should remain wild, without connectivity to the wired world. These spaces allow us important time to disconnect from our screens and reconnect with nature, our companions and ourselves. Moreover, we need to model this healthy behavior for our children, because they likely don’t have the benefit of a memory colored by landlines and rotary phones. They look to us to show them the path of a healthy and balanced life. Let us be the example that they deserve and protect our outdoor spaces.
Tom Holland is owner and president of Wilderness Adventures. As the former CEO of the American Camp Association, Tom is known as a leading expert on the camp experience. Tom has spoken at both national and international conferences on youth development, the camp experience and children in the outdoors.