05 / 23 / 19

Taught to turn on, now taught to turn off — who knew?

In 1982, when SuperCamp started, we were teaching students how to turn computers on. Now, nearly 38 years later, we are teaching students to turn their electronic devices off!

If you’re a parent, educator, or just a keen observer of the world around you, you’ve probably made the following observation: “Kids are on their phones a lot these days.” Did you know that the average amount of time the American teenager spends each day looking at the screen of their cell phone is 8 hours? The same amount of time you spend at work every day, actually.

Here are some figures that give an idea of just how ubiquitous cell phone usage is:

  • 56 percent of children between 8 and 12 have a cell phone
  • 77 percent of parents and teens have argued about smartphone usage
  • 50 percent of teens admit they are attached to their phones
  • 1/3 of teens feel more accepted online than in real life

Given these numbers, it’s no wonder that 50 percent of teens report feeling “addicted” to their mobile devices. And that number may be low; 59 percent of parents report that their teenage children are addicted to cell phones.

Unfortunately, this dependence may be causing damage well beyond the frustration of trying to get kids to look up from their phones and engage in conversation. That’s because more and more research is coming out that shows that constant cell phone usage reduces attention span, worsens performance on various cognitive tasks, and degrades the quality of real life face-to-face interactions.

If you’ve asked yourself, “How long can a teenager concentrate?” and found yourself shocked by the answer, there’s data to back that up too.

A study at the University of Southern Maine, led by psychologist Bill Thornton, found what a difference a cell phone can make while trying to complete difficult tasks. Two groups of students were asked to take a statistics test. The first group was told to keep their cell phones on their desk, while the other group was told to keep their phones out of sight.

Even though neither group used their phones during the test, the simple presence of a cell phone caused a large disparity in test results. The phone-on-the-desk group averaged 21 of 30 correct answers while the no-phone group averaged 26.

The finding was similar to that of a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. This time, researchers looked at the effect of the presence of a cell phone on face-to-face conversations. They found that conversations where phones were present caused both parties to say there was less trust and that it was of a lower quality than conversations in which phones were absent.

Looking at this complete picture, we see a scary trend. Cell phone usage is becoming more widespread among teens, even though we know that it worsens cognitive ability and interpersonal communication. (And that’s not to even touch on cyberbullying, sexting, or any of the other major problems that have arisen with increased cell phone usage.)

To this end, various “digital detoxes” for adults have been sprouting up. Kate Unsworth, CEO of Kovert Designs, organized a trip for 35 business professionals to Morocco with one catch—they wouldn’t be using any electronics. Here’s some of what she observed:

  • Conversation is better without Google. Without knowing the answers to questions, people take longer to discuss, debate, and even guess at solutions. This leads to deeper conversations as well as insight into other peoples’ thinking.
  • Sound sleep. Scientists have long known that blue light from screens makes us feel more alert, but many of us still take our phones and laptops into bed with us. Once disconnected, the people on the trip all reported feeling more rested in the morning.
  • Better posture. Without constantly tilting their heads forward to check screens, the people on Unsworth’s trip all started to straighten up and look people directly in the eye when they spoke. This resulted in relaxed and sincere conversations.

The answer, as Unsworth discovered, is to go cold turkey.

Take a Break

As students arrive at SuperCamp, they hand in their cellphones. At first, this strikes some of our students as unnecessarily stringent. But having our students truly live in the moment, free of outside distractions, has shown to have huge benefits. If you’re pulling your hair out because your teenager can’t focus, you might be pleasantly surprised in the change you see in your student after SuperCamp.

To understand why we’re so strict about cell phone and electronics usage here at SuperCamp, let us tell you a little about another one of our 8 Keys of Excellence: This Is It. We define this principle as remembering to make the most out of every moment. Though this might sound like basic or even clichéd advice, it’s surprising how many of our students come to us not used to spending time in the “here and now.”

More specifically, constantly being plugged in makes it hard to be present with peers, focused on a new cognitive challenge, or even empathetic to those around us. Since many of our exercises and activities are done in groups and encourage collaborative thinking, it’s doubly important that our students are unplugged. It’s when new perspectives are shared and new voices are heard that our students learn to think outside of their default frameworks.

  • Shannon OBrien
    Posted at 11:56h, 29 June Reply

    This is AWESOME. This issue is literally the most difficult one for me regarding raising my 4th child, who is 14 years old.
    I have a question…do you talk about this with the kids at camp?
    My daughter doesn’t listen to much I have to say about it..I am the mother, after all.
    I have had such deep concern for this generation of screen users.

    • Sarah Kelley
      Posted at 14:41h, 10 September Reply

      Hi, Shannon!

      Thank you so much for your comment. We are committed to being a tech-free camp. We find that campers gain THE MOST from their experience when they can power down, remove themselves from their world back home, and focus on the new, fun people around them! Even though the tech-free component is a helpful strategy to get campers out of their comfort zones, we also agree that tech dependency or overuse should be a part of our discussions.

      For our Senior Forum (high school program), which you daughter would qualify for since she is 14, does incorporate a tech piece. The piece is designed and facilitated to initiate a conversations regarding tech mindfulness. We consider what the benefits are, but also what are the pitfalls of having technology in our lives. Our facilitators initiate the conversation surrounding the need for moderation/balance, but then students takeover with small group discussions and then share out to the entire group. Their takeaways are definitely impactful.

      Feel free to let us know if you have any other questions. We are happy to help! 🙂


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Since 1982 SuperCamp has increased the academic and personal success of 73,000 students. Participants experience breakthrough learning, the 8 Keys of Excellence principles to live by, self-discovery, deep friendships, and fun! They learn valuable collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity strategies, and how to apply their SuperCamp experiences and skills to school, college, career, and life.