What Happens When the Plug Never Comes Out?

“The Social Dilemma” and Summer Camp’s Role in a Technology-Hooked World

Even if they may look different this year, the holidays usually find us spending more dedicated time with family than our normal routines allow. However, that also means it’s the time of year when our reliance on technology – especially that of children and teenagers – is typically the most glaring. How many times have you sat down at the dinner table and had to remind your child (or yourself!) to turn off their phone? Or missed the joy of witnessing someone unwrap a present because you were too busy photographing it for an Instagram post?

Globally, the average adult worldwide spends two hours a day on social media, while the average American teenager spends up to nine hours a day scrolling on their phone. That’s nearly half a day – and nearly 75% of our waking time. Research now estimates that social-media addiction affects almost half a million people globally. Clearly, technology has booned into an uncontrollable – and undiscriminating – force.

Although calls to tread cautiously in the social media waters have been popping up for years now, the true extent to which our unlimited connectivity is controlling our lives – oftentimes, intentionally – has not been discussed in as explicit and consequential detail as in 2020’s documentary “The Social Dilemma.” Premiering in theaters last January and finally coming to Netflix this past September, “The Social Dilemma” discusses the power of social media and the negative effects it has on its users (referred to as “products” in the movie) through a series of interviews with former Silicon Valley technology execs from the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – many of whom started or helped advance the very things they have come to critique in the film.

In the documentary, social media is presented as a “maladaptive coping strategy” that people use whenever they feel lonely, uncomfortable, sad, or bored. The various apps at our disposal mimic positive feelings of acceptance, affirmation, and approval via their systems of likes and messages, and create actual dopamine responses in our brains. However, those dopamine reactions are problematic because the stimulus causing them – the approval from a like, say – is much emptier than one your brain gets when you laugh with a friend or receive approval from a romantic interest. Our body doesn’t know the difference though, and keeps chasing these empty digital highs with more scrolls and – hopefully – more likes.

As a result of these empty dopamine rushes, social media is making teenagers and young people measurably more anxious and depressed. Perhaps most frightening, however, is that there’s no real end in sight. Without regulation, social media companies have little incentive to make their programs less addicting. That is, of course, because the entire purpose of them is to be as addicting as possible so that users stay on them for as long as possible, and in turn, so that data from those users can be mined and sold for ad revenue. To paraphrase the film, “if something is free (as most social media apps are), that likely means you’re the product.”

Summer camp has always been heralded as an “unplugged” respite for children and teenagers, even when the only things to unplug from were electricity and running water. The different, yet safe and confined, environment of a traditional summer camp is a place where children can more easily establish independence, take safe risks, and make and form friendships with people from vastly different backgrounds.

In other words, summer camp has always acted as a unique conduit through which children can gain many lifelong skills that may otherwise be difficult to naturally impart. In our technology-riddled age, the benefits of summer camp – and the uniqueness offered by its “unplugged” environment – are becoming even more monumental. In schools that bar students from using phones in class, children are still often engaging with some sort of screen – a computer, an ipad, or a TV. Today, children may travel to a new country or go camping on a family vacation only to remain 100% connected to their devices for the duration of the trip, remaining – mentally and emotionally at least – in the same space they always inhabit: on their phone with everything – and everyone – that is also online. Time and space truly apart from a phone is rare.

Summer camp remains one of the few environments – and perhaps one of the only “naturally” existing environments – that separates children (and staff!) from their phones. Not only are phones not allowed at camp, but campers are so immersed in stimulating activities – playing sports, climbing rock walls, tubing on the lake – that having a phone glued to their hip is impractical if not nearly impossible. The idle times that often elicit phone use – waiting in line, lying in bed in the morning or night, eating a meal – are instead devoted to face-to-face conversation with the campers and counselors surrounding them and sharing in those same experiences. There’s a reason San Francisco technology execs pay a pretty penny to attend silent retreats and social media detoxes.

One of the biggest takeaways from “The Social Dilemma” isn’t necessarily comforting. Technology is here to stay, and although it may not become as damaging of an addiction for most of us as is shown to be possible in the film, our opportunities to disengage from it are becoming fewer and farther in between. The documentary concludes with what we’ll call an empowered warning: “The Social Dilemma” interviewees tell viewers that the only real way we can lessen the grip social media has on us is to “take control” of our own social media usage. Whether that means establishing no-phone rules in your household, turning off notifications and deleting apps on your own phone, or investing in summer camp and other “unplugged” experiences, we at Camp Balcones Springs continue to believe that our devotion to a technology-free environment is one of the most beneficial, life-changing qualities we provide for our campers.

The Social Dilemma artwork courtesy of Netflix.