Flow Disruption

During a recent lunch with an experienced camp director, I listened to the most cogent argument I’ve heard about prohibiting staff from carrying mobile devices.

The argument has three layers.


If you ask camp staff what they think of allowing campers to have cell phones (most of which are mobile devices with e-mail, text, social networking, and full Internet access), they almost all respond “That’s a terrible idea!” And if you ask them why, the answer is equally emphatic and universal: “That would destroy the whole atmosphere of camp!”


In campers’ hands, mobile devices would distract from face-to-face friending, erode emerging independence, and divide young people’s attention between the camp program and online activities.

The same is true for staff, of course, only they are less willing to admit it.

But out of fairness, it’s logical that if we are not permitting campers to use mobile devices, we should not permit the staff to use those same devices.

They are as vulnerable—if not more so—to the disruptive aspects of multitasking as are youth. Plus, we want them to set a good example in all they do.


Some staff will counter the fairness argument with “But I don’t need to develop independence. In fact, my needs and responsibilities are quite different from those of my campers. Therefore, I should be permitted to carry a mobile device.”

Naturally, a staff member’s needs are different from a camper’s needs. And because staff members have a duty of care (also called “in loco parentis” or acting in place of the parent), they need to be 100 percent present for their campers.

For example, when belaying a camper on a high ropes element, a staff member benefits from focusing on the task at hand. He or she needs to be present.

It would be a dangerous distraction for that staff member to have his or her mobile device buzz at that moment, even if he didn’t answer it.

Indeed, more and more states recognize the importance of cognitive presence for drivers and have passed laws forbidding the use of handheld devices while driving a vehicle.


Other staff will counter the presence argument with “But I can ignore my phone when it rings. I can even turn off my device when I’m on duty.”

Indeed some staff do have the self-discipline to turn off their devices during activity periods. The problem comes with turning them on.

Although some content is benign, other content can change one’s mindset dramatically. We want staff to have their heads in the game and focus on the needs of the young people they serve.

They simply cannot do that after getting an upsetting e-mail, reading an enticing Facebook post or Tweet, or—worse still—spending time gaming, gambling, or watching porn.

Would you want your staff to go from losing a high-stakes game of online Texas Hold ‘Em or watching an arousing adult video to lifeguarding or coaching a sport or playing games with your campers?

If we want staff to be fair to campers, present for duty, and focused on a wholesome mindset, we’ll require them to keep mobile devices off when they are on camp property.

I applaud any camp director who asks his or her staff to use mobile devices only on nights off and days off and never during the day while on camp property. To permit anything more erodes the quality of the experience for staff and campers alike.

And to the staff member who protests that he needs to keep in daily contact with everyone and everything at home and online, you may want to consider that the easiest way for him to do that is to actually stay at home.

Camps need staff who can focus on children.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at SummerCampHandbook.com. He is the co-creator of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at chris@campspirit.com.