Teens Unplug

39484_1580535632502_1209001199_31645554_7513271_nThis group of teens unplugged for two weeks of surfing and community work in Hawaii. And, guess what? When they had the option of turning their phones back on, they didn’t.

Are they unusual?

Well, not as much as you might think.

These kids–and one of them was my then 15-year-old daughter– went on a two-week voluntourism vacation in Hawaii operated by Adventures Cross Country which specializes in adventure and service vacations for teens.

They worked for Habitat for Humanity, cleaned up beaches with the Surf Rider Foundation, surfed, kayaked along the Na Pali Coast and camped on beaches. And the whole time they were together, they talked only to each other — no zoning out from a conversation with the person in front of you to answer a text from a friend.

When they headed back to the airport for the inevitable teary farewells, the young people in the group turned their cell phones on, sent a few texts and then decided to stop. They wanted to spend the time they had left together with each other, not texting other people. They didn’t want to break the magic bubble of friendships built without the usual distractions of technology.
This reaction happens with about half the groups, according to Scott von Eschen, president ofAdventures Cross Country. They don’t want the trip to end. And when they get to the airport and turn their cell phones on, that ends it. “They turn it on and their real world starts flowing back in,” says von Eschen.
Adventures Cross Country maintains a cell phone-free policy on its trips. The entire idea is to separate and build a new community. You might say that any time you’ve got a dozen 15- and 16-year-olds bombing around Hawaii with two 20-something counselors, it’s easy for them to unplug.
Shortly after my daughter’s Hawaii trip, she and I and my eight-year-old went on a seven-day cruise to Bermuda aboard the Celebrity Summit. Although the ship had Internet accessand those with iPhones could make phone calls, I had my daughter keep her Sprint Pre turned off. And so did the parents of most of the other kids on the ship.
These cell phone-free kids met in the hot tub and spent sea days roaming the ship in a pack that ranged anywhere in size from 10 to 20 (the Summit’s family program includes a Senior Teens section for 15- to 17-year-olds). The bonding was not as deep as that my daughter had built with her Hawaii group, but the Summit cruise re-enforced the lessons from the Adventures Cross Country trip.

What my kids learned was that freeing yourself from your electronic tether helps you concentrate on the community you’re building when you’re away from home. That’s the rationale behind the no-cell phone policy at many summer camps. Part of the camp experience is developing “the kind of authentic human relations that are so important, but that kids so often don’t get when they’re tied to a device,” says Ann Sheets, past national president of the American Camp Association, a nearly 100-year-old association for camp professionals. All of us — kids and adults alike–are reluctant to unplug.

Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical consulting psychologist now writing book on impact of technology on families, says that’s because we’re afraid we’ll miss something vital. Adults are usually worried about being out of the loop at work; adolescents, whose world centers on their social connections, are concerned of being out of the social loop. But staying connected online disrupts vacations. When someone is talking to you and looks away to check something on a handheld, the implicit message is that whatever is on that PDA is more important than the person standing in front of them.

Steiner-Adair advises families to set parameters on technology use during vacations and says that even tour groups should consider guidelines on checking email and texts. You can’t get the maximum return you should get from your vacation if part of your brain is back in the office or with your buddies at home. We all get in ruts in our lives. Travel is one great way to break out of those ruts. It gives you new perspectives on yourself and the way you live – as well as ideas on how to change. Unplugging and going screen-free is one great way to do that, whether you’re a kid or an adult.

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