Summer Camp's Digital Divide

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Memories of summer camp (search) include bunking in a cabin, canoeing and spotting a daddy longlegs in the shower, but today's kids live in the digital era and that's causing camp conflicts.

Raised on a diet of instant messages (search) and mobile chatter, kids can get separation anxiety when they're forced to leave their gadgets behind. But some camps are determined to wean youngsters off their wireless contraptions.

"It's now part of the adjustment period of going to camp," said Dick Thomas, director of Camp Chewonki (search) in Wiscasset, Maine. "They get pangs of homesickness as well as pangs of wanting to send out an e-mail or play on a Gameboy."

Camp Chewonki has a strict no-electronics policy and instead encourages kids to connect to the great outdoors.

"Electronics have never been allowed for the interruption they can cause in the natural world," Thomas said. "We have kick ball, sailing, swimming, archery but no electronic influences."

If gadgets are discovered, they're confiscated, but the kids' busy schedules and close quarters usually keep them out of trouble, said Thomas.

"When you're in a camp community you can't get away with much," he said. "You can't sneak in a Gameboy without other kids finding out and somebody saying something."

Around 10 million people attend some sort of camp each summer, according to the American Camping Association (search), and the latest crop of campers stares at screens more than sunsets.

"Children today are the video generation," said a statement on the ACA Web site. "Nearly half of their discretionary time [is spent] watching television and the amount of time children spend on the Internet is increasing at a very rapid rate."

The increasingly wired world is dividing campers. While places like Chewonki restrict electronics, at other camps, being plugged into the outside world is essential.

At Julian Krinsky Business Camp (search), which has locations at Haverford College, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University, kids gather around computers instead of campfires.

"We have Internet and air conditioning," camp founder Julian Krinsky said. "My crowd doesn't want to go play in the woods."

Krinsky contends that having options for campers is important. "There are young people who come to business camp who are bent on business," he said. "Should they be at traditional camp? No -- they'd end up selling Kool Aid to other campers."

But mosquito bites and getting dirty are part of the thrill of going away, said Jane Zemel, a mother of two girls in Tulsa, Okla.

"Summer should just be summer sometimes," she said. "Some parents have their kids do the other hoity-toity camps for themselves, so they can talk about them at cocktail parties."

Zemel said her teenage daughters love the break their rustic camp provides, and she's glad to have them spend their time off the old-fashioned way.

But Sherri Pfefer, whose two adolescent sons attend camp in North Carolina, said her boys find giving up modern conveniences unthinkable. Her eldest sends her updates on his two-way pager and watches a portable DVD player. This year, he even wants his online DVD delivery service to send movies to him at camp.

"Times have totally changed. When I went to camp we didn't have all these tech items," she said from Miami.

The boys' camp discourages electronics but doesn't have a rule against them -- and Pfefer sees nothing wrong with kids having battery-powered fun.

"They have down time, let them spend it however they're comfortable," she said. "We used to play tic-tac-toe. They have their high-tech toys."

But Zemel said computerized communication shouldn't replace traditions like handwritten letters and the creativity they foster.

"Part of the fun was that none of that stuff was allowed," she said of traditional camps. "Now you can e-mail campers, but it was fun to send things through the mail, use fun stickers and send a little contraband."

And the camp experience, long seen as a steppingstone to independence, can be ruined with electronic distractions, according to Zemel.

"Camp is a cool way of being on your own for three-and-a-half weeks, and cell phones mess that up," she said. "The whole point of being at camp is being with other people. It forces them to interact with people when there are no artificial things to distract them, just the bunks and the girls -- and the boys. But the less I know about that the better.”