The Joy Thief

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What if I told you that Camp Mishawaka had commissioned a study of the impact of our product, hired smart professionals, used all the tools available to get good data, and let the study run for 3 years only to find out that 32% of respondents felt worse about themselves after a session at Camp? Would you be willing to send your child to Camp? That’s just what Facebook discovered when it conducted a 3-year long study of how Instagram affects its teenage girl users. In a comprehensive series of articles and podcasts, the Wall Street Journal revealed the conclusions of Facebook’s study, which up to now had not been shared. And most recently, a former Facebook employee revealed on 60 MInutes more damning information about the social media giant.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” the quote most often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt and recently popularized by Brene Brown in her book Rising Strong is at the center of the negative self-image that often results after spending time scrolling through one’s Instagram feed. And the study showed that teenage girls are most susceptible to the effect. “Social comparison is worst on Instagram,” the study reported, and it seems to have the largest effect on teenagers at a very vulnerable time in their lives. The tendency to share only curated, filtered images that portray only the best moments is destructive, the document stated- nor is it a reflection of anyone’s day to day reality.

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I’d prefer not to let this descend into just another rant about the ill-effect of teen social media usage. These media are here to stay, ubiquitous and growing every day, and have even become an indispensable part of our social and professional persona. What they come without is any sort of instruction manual, or guidebook. Children, especially teenage girls, are left to navigate the digital universe without context, or a fully developed sense of self.

Now what if I told you there were ways to help teens ply these digital waters with a bit more grounding, a better sense of self and the ability to call bullshit on an all-too-perfect representation of a life that they know is fraught with all the discord that being human brings? I don’t pretend to know them all, but I happen to know one of the tools to help these kids- a traditional summer camp experience. I can tell you, it’s pretty hard to curate your image when you roll out of bed for morning dips or are late for the flag raising. Yes, kids get a chance to see one another at their best at Camp, too, but having also seen them at their most vulnerable, their most human and childlike, they gain an appreciation for the shared condition of youth.

And what if I told you that the American Camp Association is wrapping up a 5-year longitudinal study about the benefits of children attending summer camp? The project is yet to be completed, but early themes have emerged: camp helps relational development, promotes learning during the academic year and builds resilience in children of all ages. It helps with regulation of emotion, promotes self-image, develops confidence and decision making skills. If only camp were as ubiquitous as Instagram!

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The essayist Pico Guyer wrote (a decade ago!) in reference to the dominance of all things digital in our lives that, “All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.” I don’t pretend to know all the places one can find such clarity, but I know of one, and it’s my work to keep it thriving and relevant. Now you know one, too.

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