This summer, children of privilege across America have taken a leave of absence from their Facebook status updates and Snapchat selfies to engage in the good old-fashioned rituals of sleepaway camp, where phones and computers are restricted so kids can better focus on camp plays and Capture the Flag. But many of these children are still mugging for the camera phone—it’s just that the device is now being manned by counselors, who are uploading photographic evidence of campers’ daily lives and feeding them straight to their parent’s screens.
As Amy Gamerman details in a Wall Street Journal story that’s equal parts lol and sob, the same “parents who have paid upward of $10,000 so their kids can unplug for a screen-free summer, spend hours on camp websites to catch glimpses of them.” Every night, these parents zoom in on the camp’s daily photo stream searching for signs of injury, adolescent angst, or just insufficient placement in camp theatrical productions. If parents see something that displeases them, they’ll pick up their own smartphones to give the camp director a call.
This online monitoring system doesn’t just indulge the anxieties of plugged-in helicopter parents; it also dictates how their children are acting when they’re ostensibly off the grid. So many parents have instructed their children to give the thumbs-up sign in camp photos to signal that all is well upstate that some camps have banned the gesture entirely. One parent has sidestepped that rule by coaching her son to communicate his emotional wellbeing through the direction of his baseball cap; at one New York theater camp, kids communicate messages to their parents by placing their hands in their laps or at their sides. Some kids who adhere to the system even stand to earn increased screen time when they return home. “That thumb has to be so tired, it’s up there in every picture,” says Nancy Corson Schwartz, who lives and dies by the configuration of her 10-year-old son’s tiny fingers. “I told him, ‘You want a phone? You want a TV in your room? It is priceless what you’ve done for me this summer.’”
All of this risks threatening the entire point of these pricy summer camps—to give kids the opportunity to venture out of the house in a safe environment, while affording parents a break from their child-raising duties. But it also shakes the foundation of parental concern-trolling over the role of the internet in modern childhood. The same parents who are wringing their hands over how much time their kids spend online also rely on social media to obsessively monitor their kids. Now, these parents have become so hooked on that access that even when they confiscate their kids’ phones, they’re willing to pay other adults to live-stream their childhoods. These adults may talk a big game about the creeping influence of the internet over children’s lives, but apparently, some of them need social media even more than they fear it. Wonder if the kids notice that?