If you are a parent of a teenager you have probably spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about the impact smartphones, the internet, and social media, may be having on your child. There are thousands of articles, hundreds of books, and countless ongoing conversations about the amount of time a typical teenager spends on a screened device. Many studies have been conducted and more are in process right now. And yet, even with the plethora of written material that can be found on the subject, this is still a new concept in our culture. We have only scratched the surface in our understanding of the positive and negative effects of technology on individuals and on our population as a whole. Many of the conclusions being drawn in the media and academic studies suggest that our digital developments are having more negative effects than positive.
Of course, the longitudinal studies on technological use are incomplete since this current teenage population, plus and minus five years, is the first generation to be raised on it. As Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, shares “What this generation is going through right now with technology is a giant experiment, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.” According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 73% of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, have or have access to smartphones. Studies suggest that smartphones are getting between adolescents and their enjoyment of and engagement in face-to-face interaction. We’ve all witnessed teenagers sitting in small or large groups quietly focused on their personal screens. And they see us, as adults, doing the same thing, perhaps with a little more moderation (but not always!). That’s the concerning news.
The good news is that, according to the Pew 2015 survey, more than half of teens worry that they spend too much time using their cell phones. This is the world they are growing up in and they don’t know any different. Yet, this generation is recognizing the potential pitfalls of too much screen time. This is where The Outdoor Academy comes in.
Back in 1994, The Outdoor Academy welcomed its first semester of tenth graders, just as computers with dial-up internet were becoming a standard feature in schools and in many homes. As had been the tradition at Eagle’s Nest Camp, OA decided that internet connected computers, email, and phone lines were not going be a part of the students’ semester. While at OA, they would engage in an experience free from such distractions. For 4 months, students were to immerse themselves in the place they were in and the people they were with, to receive the unending opportunities to learn in the greatest context there is – the here and now. Fast forward nearly 25 years, and being free from the distractions of modern society takes on a whole new level of importance for teenagers.
Having been at OA in the late 90’s and then returning in 2015, the decision made so long ago for OA to remain free from cell phones, internet, email, social media, gaming, etc. now seemed to me as cutting-edge. As people across the US and the world grapple with “internet addiction,” one of the primary and most effective treatments is proving to be wilderness therapy. The woods, the forest floor, the creek that ripples by, the sound of rustling leaves, the trail that invites conversation, the mountain vistas that invoke quiet contemplation – these things, these places, and these experiences are the panacea of the ages.
During the admissions interview with OA applicants, I ask the question, “How do you feel about stepping away from technology for four months?” Many parents worry that this may be the one thing that will stop their teenager from wanting to attend OA. Often, parents can’t imagine their child’s life without their cell phone in hand or their computer at their fingertips. Well, the answer I hear from OA applicants nearly every time goes something like this: “I am really excited about that part. I know I spend too much time on my phone and my computer, but I just can’t ignore it no matter how hard I try. Being with people where no one has that around will be so nice.” Often, an applicant will recount stories of a short day hike they took with a friend or their family. They will express how amazing it was to be with another person or a group where there were no phones and instead find themselves talking to the people around them. They will talk of the sounds of silence, of bird calls, and the sounds of the woods. They will talk of how awesome it was just to focus on what they were doing at that moment. The feelings they describe are those of a sense of place, a sense of awe, and a unique closeness to the people around them. This again is good news.
Our youth have a knowing inside them, a recognition, that there is an imbalance in the life consumed by their personal device, social media, texting, emails, and YouTube videos. I am of the belief that as this generation ages into adulthood, they will find ways to regulate their personal technology use. They will incorporate the strategies that they have found works for them and share these strategies with their children. We owe it to them to share our ideas and experiences and to help them create this toolbox.
So long as the human species exists on this planet, the natural world in some way, shape, or form will continue to exist. Our job as the adults, the ones who facilitate the day-to-day options and ways of living and being for our children, is to first and foremost take our children to the woods. For it is there they will find their way. It is there where they will hear their own thoughts. It is there where the miracles of life offer the lessons that can only be found in the natural world. As Jensen said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen” as a result of this technological experiment. But what we do know, and our youth are reminding us, is that there is no greater antidote for a distracted mind, a disconnected heart, or a soul longing for peace than to be in nature. As Rachel Carson wrote, “Those who dwell in the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”
By Julie Holt, Admissions Director