Meaningful Interaction

How to engage a hyper-connected generation without using technology

By Lindsay Rother

How often do you go out to dinner, only to see people—of all ages—talking on their phones instead of talking to one another? It’s no secret that this society is one that greatly relies on technology. With the latest and greatest devices constantly debuting on the market, and too many online social platforms to count, it’s no wonder we are living in an age of hyper-connectedness.

Photo: Kanakuk Kamps

Photo: Kanakuk Kamps

It’s important, however, to make the distinction between being hyper-connected with people and being hyper-connected to technology. The latter is becoming more prevalent, especially with the younger generation. This world of technology has created a façade that people are more connected to each other than ever. The truth is that many people who are hyper-connected via technology actually feel quite lonely, despite having instant access to people on social media. This feeling stems from a lack of real interaction.

It has become normal for us to share the highlight reels of our lives, only showcasing the very best parts on social platforms. This only feeds the comparison monster, a real threat of this technology-driven world. All too often, we are actually missing out on experiencing real moments of connection because we are worried about capturing them to share on social media. We end up watching a concert through a camera on an iPhone or missing out on meaningful conversations with friends because we are too busy trying to get the perfect picture or video for our Instagram stories. Now, more than ever, the world is in need of a technology intervention—and for kids of all ages, we believe this can come in the form of summer camp.

Summer camp is an ideal place for kids to escape their hyper-connected world because phones are, most likely, not allowed. Surprisingly, once technology is removed from their world, kids really are okay without it. I would go so far as to say that kids long for authentic, face-to-face connections, but sadly they have rarely seen these interactions modeled. Because of this, the reality is that kids often don’t even know how to be engaged without their cell phones. Giving kids the chance to unplug in order to recharge goes far beyond simply removing the actual devices. Summer-camp staff members have the ability to create space where genuine interactions can happen, allowing kids to leave camp experiencing what’s possible without technology, and maybe even being prepared to create these spaces at home.

I work with middle school-aged campers at Kanakuk’s K-West, which hosts about 1,400 12- to 14-year-olds each year, and I’m always inspired by the growth I see when staff members engage the kids with intention and purpose. We train the staff on this before a single camper steps foot on the property. Here are a few key practices that can transform your camp from a retreat to a greenhouse for personal growth.

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Fun + Trust = Truth
To best create a greenhouse for growth, the environment must allow kids to feel truly and deeply known and valued for who they actually are, not only for the parts they believe are good enough. In order for this to be possible, staff members must begin by simply having fun with campers. Laughter, memories, and experience create trust. Once trust is formed, kids begin to feel safe sharing the not-so-glamorous areas of their lives. If campers are able to share their fears, failures, and insecurities in an accepting, supportive environment, true confidence-building can begin.

To create this sort of environment, staff members must be willing to listen before they speak.

Ultimately, facilitating these types of supportive friendships will equip campers to return to normal teenage life with the perspective that they are innately valuable and can help others feel the same confidence.

Starts With Staff
So, how do you actually go about creating this type of environment at summer camp? The most practical way is to create a space that fosters growth away from technology and to make sure that staff members understand the value of true relationships as well. Remember, staff members have been raised in a technology-saturated environment similar to that of campers. The staff must first experience authentic face-to-face interactions in order to demonstrate these to campers. Encouraged by directors and leadership teams, staff members will naturally begin to model more of what they’ve experienced. This vitality of personal interaction amidst a technologically driven world is a key component to campers gaining this invaluable exposure.

Ask Bigger Questions
Teach staff members how to ask questions that go beyond surface-level items like favorite colors and what subjects campers like in school. These questions are great conversation starters, but it’s important to keep asking other questions. “What subject do you like in school?” can turn to “What are you most deeply passionate about? What do you want to do with your future?” “What is your favorite sport?” can lead to “Are your parents involved with your sports’ teams?” “Do you feel pressure when you play sports or are they still fun for you?” These elevated questions allow campers to open up in ways they otherwise wouldn’t because asking questions ultimately shows kids that somebody truly cares to know them deeply.

Elevate Accountability
Before campers arrive, leadership must remind staff members of the role their own social media and connectedness play in relationships on and off camp grounds. It’s important for them to be aware how they talk about social media and technology around campers, and especially important how they portray themselves online. Consider adding a brief, interactive conversation to their training to educate them in this arena. Most college students are also navigating hyper-connectedness without guidance, just like kids.

Talk It Out
While social media are absent from summer camp, conversation about how we interact with technology does not need to be missing. Camps have kids’ full attention—without technology—to bring truth into their lives about social media. Camps have a unique and powerful opportunity to help kids understand the reality of the world they will step back into when returning home.

This new generation needs to know that their value as individuals is not determined by the number of likes on their posts or followers on their channels. It’s so easy to begin finding an identity in an online presence. We can talk with campers about how social media can be leveraged and used for good without their being consumed along the way.

Designate time to educate campers on how they can use the story they tell online to empower others. Can they go in and purposefully like or comment positively on several posts from someone who may need some encouragement or a true friend? Can campers use social media to inspire others to be more transparent? What if they used social platforms to share an encouraging word or thought instead of their latest life update?

Instagram or Snapchat stories can be great vehicles for spreading positivity online, whether they are a scripture or a moment of inspiration. Maybe the next time someone posts about having a difficult time, or even alludes to a struggle, a camper can send a direct message asking to meet to talk about the person’s challenges. Social media can be a platform for connectedness, so inviting others to connect offline can facilitate healthier relationships online. This might even include dialogue that evaluates the motive behind posting by asking this simple question: Why am I about to post this?

A discussion about practicing self-discipline and simply experiencing an event rather than documenting it may be introduced as well. The opportunities are endless as we help kids navigate how they maintain a healthy online presence. We can ignore technology and social media, or we can help kids learn to navigate the platform. Let’s choose to give them a compass and other tools to use in a healthy manner, rather than send them home with their phones and say “Good luck!”

Kids may not have another space in which to learn these lessons. If every teenager or young adult who steps foot onto camp grounds walks away empowered to live in a healthy relationship to technology and foster true relationships away from screens, their future will be much brighter. May this be the summer we send socially engaged and individually confident people through the camp gates and into the world.

Lindsay Rother is the K-West Assistant Women’s Director at Kanakuk Kamps and the Dean of Women at the Kanakuk Institute. She graduated from Oklahoma State University, the Kanakuk Institute, and John Brown University. She began working for Kanakuk as summer staff in 2006 and full-time in 2010. Lindsay loves to have fun because it is the catalyst that helps people build relationships and trust, both of which open the door for truth to be shared. Lindsay longs to see staff and Kampers living purposefully for the Gospel in their daily lives.