Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

For the past few years, I have visited Vermont with my daughters to stay in a wonderful resort-cum-kids’-camp. Last month, we duly made the trek again – and I noticed a subtle change. Until now, the marketing literature for this camp, known as Smugglers’ Notch, has promoted the benefits of staying in the mountains in terms of enhancing precious “family time”. This year, however, there was an additional twist: getting your family into the forests also enables digital detox.

More specifically, by taking part in that hallowed American tradition of the summer camp – or simply roaming the great outdoors as a family – parents can “unplug” their youngsters from their addiction to smartphones, iPads or iPods. “Today’s travelling parents are emphasising active family vacations that get their children away from the screen,” the resort newsletter chirpily declared. “Take a break from TVs and tablets, get out in that sunshine … spend the day surrounded by the beauty of nature.”

It is a clever tactic. For one of the curses – and ironies – of the modern world is that the more addicted we all quietly become to so-called “screen time”, the more attractive the idea of escaping those digital devices seems, at least in theory. The numbers are striking. Back in 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted an extensive survey and concluded that American children aged between eight and 18 were spending more than seven hours a day consuming media, including computers, television, video games and so on.

Some researchers see this as exaggerated, due to “double-counting” (so that an hour spent surfing the net while the TV is on counts as two hours’ screen time), and say that the average covers a wide spectrum of practices. In June, for example, researchers at Northwestern University released a separate survey that divides families into three types: “media-light” families, where parents use screens for less than two hours a day and children a “mere” 1.5 hours; “media-moderate” families, where the usage is five and three hours respectively; and “media-centric” families, where the usage is 11 hours and 4.5 hours.

But even if the Northwestern survey sounds less dramatic, it is worth noting that 39 per cent of the families it studied were considered “media-centric”. And with smartphones and iPads now becoming ubiquitous, the one thing that almost all researchers agree on is that the level of screen time seems likely only to rise in the years ahead.

Just how damaging this is for children – and parents – is a matter of great dispute. The Northwestern survey reports that only 30 per cent of parents are actively worried about their family’s media consumption. And in the past year, some scientific studies have argued that, contrary to the usual perception, smartphones or iPads can, if handled well, benefit children. Using technology at a young age instils tech-savvy skills, or so the argument goes, and many of the games sold on iPads and iPhones purport to be educational.

However, the American medical establishment is unimpressed: the National Institutes of Health insists in its official advice that parents should “limit screen time to one to two hours a day for children over the age of two”. And in practical terms, most parents I know (including myself) are distinctly uneasy about the peer pressure to engage in screen time, not simply because this is so sedentary, but also because it undermines social interaction and creative, self-driven play.

Hence the growing appeal of that “unplugged” marketing pitch at places such as Smugglers’ Notch. In reality, many kids’ camps have quietly been banning electronic devices for many years now. But when those devices were simply PlayStations that seemed a trivial issue; unplugging these smartphones is tantamount to a social lobotomy, as far as many teenagers are concerned. Which, of course, is exactly why the idea sounds so attractive to some parents (even if – ironically – those same parents are using the time that their kids are at camp to work on multiple screens themselves).

So does it work? My own experience in Vermont was somewhat mixed. My daughters recoiled in shock when they were solemnly told by a camp counsellor that digital devices were banned from their camp sessions. Still, once they ascertained that it applied to everyone – and thus there was no peer pressure to use their devices – they forgot about their screens. I was thrilled. But when they returned to our cabin, I briefly let them check their messages – and they announced that their friends from camp were all back online, playing the wildly addictive and hot new game Minecraft from their mountain cabins. After interacting on the mountains amid that wholesome nature, they were now desperate to mingle in cyberspace too to cement those ties.

A heartwarming sign of new forms of social cohesion? Or a terrible sign of modern escapism? Frankly, I am unsure. Either way, the one thing that is clear is that the more intense our screen addiction becomes, the more profit-hungry businesses will try both to feed our tech addictions and exploit our half-stated, uneasy realisation that we need to cut back, be that in the mountains, the urban jungle, or anywhere else.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.