Teens and Smartphones: A Summer Camp Experiment

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Female campers uses iPhone at summer camp Campers were allowed to bring smartphones, tablets and other technology to Longacre Camp for the first time in the summer of 2013. (Jennifer Hsu/WNYC)

Will a bold experiment in Pennsylvania create good habits for kids, or ruin a summer ritual?

This blog post is by New Tech City host Manoush Zomorodi.

I would totally send my kids to Longacre Leadership, a camp in rural Pennsylvania New Tech City first profiled in July.

Set on a woodsy hilltop dotted with tents, it has exactly the organic-farming-community-building-exhuberant-but-not-too-crazy-competitive spirit that would attract a lot of yuppie Brooklyn parents who are nervous about sending their offspring away for the summer.

The campers refer to each other as "farmers." They milk goats, collect eggs, pick fresh lettuce and go on wholesome outings to nearby Hershey Park and the local bowling alley.

So you might think, "Wow, what a great chance for teens to unplug and enjoy nature and make new friends! No distracting video games and social media apps!"

But the camp’s director had something else in mind this year.  


Matt Smith is the son of Longacre's founders. He's 31 years old, and this is his first summer in charge. He has a different philosophy than his parents when it comes to leadership.

He feels that, for teenagers today, "leadership" isn't about learning to take charge. It's about learning how to make decisions for yourself, take considered actions and set boundaries.  

Our constant immersion in gadgets is making it harder and harder for kids to develop those skills, Smith says.  

So rather than mandate a digital blackout, he decided to help his campers develop ways to cope with technology.

As Smith explained, "This generation is the first to be grappling with this. They grew up with screens and smartphone technology. We just figured if we are going to prepare them for life, part of that preparation has to be learning to find balance in their lives with technology."

When I first talked to Smith in June, before camp started, he was nervous about Longacre's new "Anything Goes" policy.

The camp encouraged the teens to bring along their smartphones, tablets and other digital devices, but on Day 1, they had to hand their gadgets over to Smith and stay tech-free for the first week so they could get to know one another face to face.

When the campers were reunited with their gadgets, all hell broke loose.  

Kids ran to The Octagon, the only cabin with electricity, to plug in. They ignored each other and holed up in tent corners to tweet, update Facebook, text, call and be gamified.  

Kimmy, a girl from Long Island, described those first hours back with her phone as an out-of-body experience: "I know this sounds strange but I didn't even know where I was. I was like wait, am I talking to my friends or am I at camp?"

In late July, when I went to visit the camp with WNYC's Jennifer Hsu and Collin Campbell, the kids had gotten used to having their gadgets back. Some of them had grown philosophical about technology. Many decided to set limits for themselves…and for their friends.  

Kids who wore their headphones too often got dirty looks. Some campers restricted themselves to texting during quiet time. One girl even handed her phone back to Smith. She felt the constant contact with her friends and family reignited the homesickness that had abated during her first week.

Looking back, Smith says he thinks his campers were more at ease when their gadgets were tucked away.

"Adolescents want to socialize, be accepted, try new behaviors, separate from their parents," he said. "Those are all normal behaviors and I understand why social media can be an allure. But camp and other kids can provide that."

During our visit, I saw a lot of hugging and hand-holding at Longacre. There was kitchen duty, gardening, lasso instruction, swimming, lots of singing and a cave exploration field trip. Fun stuff.

One teenage boy told us, "People don’t see technology as tools anymore. They see them as friends."

Despite his disgust with what gadgets can do to real-life relationships, he confided that after trying out his bunkmate's iPhone, he was definitely going to buy one when he got home.

"I'm not going to use it as much as other people, but I still want to know about it," he told me.  

This camper had discovered where he drew the line on technology.

At least one mission accomplished, Matt Smith.

Hosted by:

Manoush Zomorodi

Produced by:

Collin Campbell and Jennifer Hsu

Comments [8]

I Farmer from Pennsylvania

"jimzien": With all due respect, it "eludes me" why you feel the need to slam this experiment meant to teach adolescents proper uses of technology in a safe and fun setting. I have been a farmer at Longacre for a few years, and I know for certain that you have never come anywhere near this program if you really think Longacre lacks a " natural setting of camp, human interaction, fine mentors, and role models." And anyone from longacre would never think it was any type of marketing ploy, because we know the dedication the staff and owners have to finding mature, outgoing, well adgusted teens. And if you are so against inappropriate use of marketing, and marketing has had no play in this camp's decision, maybe using an ill-informed and snide comment on a piece of journalism to try to promote your program is a ridiculously hypocritical thing to do. This is not an ad section. Plenty of families want what longacre is. It's a loving supporting community that accepts you for who you are where I've made great friends that I communicate with constantly, and where I can live and play under the stars, and just love it there, and miss it at home like I do now. Technology did not change the farm I love. And you are so mistaken.

Aug. 29 2013 09:13 PM
Trevor M. from Vermont

Jim Zien, executive director of the Aloha foundation-- good job accusing this innocent looking program (which is trying something new and clearly succeeding) of exploiting its children to a "marketing initiative" as you so obviously advertise your own subordinate program.

Aug. 22 2013 07:18 PM
Gabrielle R. Shatan from New York city

I attended Longacre Farm when I was 16 and 17 in the late 70's before there was ubiquitous technology and I had two amazing summers! I loved taking care of the animals, the local field trips and most of all the relationships with other farmers and staff. One of the special things about the farm was that we were all treated with respect. This past spring I received a series of emails about the plan to allow technology on the farm and was again impressed with the depth of thought and respect that went into this decision. As a parent of two teenage children heading off to college I agree that learning to self regulate is an essential skill. I also think that talking and thinking about the impact of technology is critical to our society as it adapts to all the tremendous changes wrought by technology (both good and bad and mixed). Engaging teens and young adults in this dialogue is a great idea. I think that Longacre Farm's approach is in keeping with their philosophy from over 30 years ago (it is in no way a marketing ploy!) and I applaud them for tackling this issue in a thoughtful and respectful way. I hope they keep sharing their thoughts on this matter going forward!

Aug. 22 2013 12:23 PM
Brittany G from Maryland

I was a little confused on the message of the true effect of the technology at Longacre presented here. I was a farmer at Longacre this summer. Absolutely not, this was not a marketing tactic. All three of my sibings and I have attended Longacre, with and without technology, and Longacre is a homey, caring, close community not at all interested in money. It's a farm. I attended without my siblings this year, (I'm 16) and although I was apprehensive of the much talked about prospective effects of phones at hand, I soon felt relieved. The technology was second at hand to being with fellow farmers. I would even say with confidence that it could bring people together, especially with music. Absolutely kids need to learn to regulate their ever-present technology. Because, in building realistic life skills, you can spend one nice natural, wholesome summer free of technology; at Longacre you take that wholesomeness throughout your life with you as knowledge and control, bringing happiness for a lifetime. Technology won't go away. This is a great opportunity for teens to learn to regulate it. And I can say that almost everyone learned that.

Aug. 20 2013 11:21 AM
Lloyd O'Hara

My daughter was at Longacre for four weeks this summer. She currently does have a phone or an iPad. We did send her with an old Kindle so she could read and her iPod stayed home. Even though my wife and I, as parents, have not gone down the tech road with our daughter yet, I completely understand and agree with what Longacre is trying to accomplish. Longacre is trying to build community and now-a-days, whether we like it or not, appropriate use of technology is a part of our kids' community. I applaud the idea and implementation of teaching young people about taking responsibility in their lives and how to make decisions and how to set boundaries for themselves. My daughter came back a bit more mature and a bit more responsible and the best part is that she had a blast while doing it. She wants to return next summer and we will be sending her.

Aug. 19 2013 05:30 PM
Mike s.

I was at camp this summer and Its not like everyone was just aloud to use there phone whenever, we couldnt use it during activity periods and definatly not in group (where you can share ylur feelings directed towards someone or at a group without fear of retaliation) plus that first week was enough time for friendships to form and keep going throughout the summer. Also, multiple people mentioned in group mentioned that they have set their own boundaries and admit that they dont need their technology as much as they though. MULTIPLE people considered handing their tech back in. if I had to pick which summer of mine was better, I would saythis one (my second year) technology actually brought us together. And the zombie girls are my friends

Aug. 19 2013 01:25 PM
jimzien from Vermont

The purpose of this experiment eludes me -- it certainly has nothing to do with enhancing children's experience of the natural setting of the camp or human interactions with fine mentors and role models. Perhaps it was a marketing initiative, designed to attract campers who wouldn't consider relinquishing virtual reality for more than a few days of non-mediated get-to-know-you?

For well over 100 years children at the Vermont girls' and boys' camps of The Aloha Foundation ( have reaped the rewards of living and learning first-hand in communities of active social engagement rather than passive social networking (see article photos). Plenty of families want that.

Jim Zien
Executive Director
The Aloha Foundation
Fairlee, Vermont

Aug. 19 2013 12:43 PM
Damon J Hemmerdinger from NY

What a great profile of a wonderful summer program. Look how happy those kids look - Even the two girls lying on their bed who look a little like zombies are at rest time.

Aug. 19 2013 12:36 PM

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