Technology is fully ingrained in our busy lives, and even more so in the lives of tweens and teens. Think about it: If it weren’t for time spent in the classroom (which involves screens sometimes, as well), students in the tween and teen years could easily fill the day without looking up from their handheld devices.

They text instead of talk, keep up with friends through Instagram and SnapChat, and do most of their schoolwork in front of a computer. And then there’s the entertainment: a series on Netflix, video games and streaming music.

After so much time “plugged in,” there’s not much time left for experiencing the real world.

Although it may seem daunting to kids at first, technology-free summer programs are exactly what they need to reconnect to the real world, to see the beauty and engage with people around them, make eye contact, hear stories firsthand, absorb life lessons and experience life in a simpler, more relaxed way than they are able to when school is in session.

Working with an organization that runs international community service summer programs, I feel particularly passionate about this topic. When we started 27 years ago, technology was obviously not an issue. Since the beginning, we have been dedicated to creating quality programs that are rooted in meaningful service work and cultural immersion.

We live and work in our host communities for the duration of the trip, and because we return year after year, local people fold us into their everyday lives and welcome us like family. Throw a kid on a smartphone into the mix — a gadget that most locals don’t even have — and the magical formula gets turned on its head.

Some programs do allow technology on their trips, and it might be for good reason at times. For instance, academic summer programs often allow and promote the use of technology inside and outside the classroom. But I don’t see any value in allowing technology on international service programs, unless perhaps it’s more of a teen tour model.

If a program does allow technology, I can’t help but wonder if the participants are truly being engaged in more relevant and important things, and if technology is being used as a convenient time-waster (with kids more than happy to indulge in screen time).

Although some kids — and the occasional parents who want to make sure they have regular contact with their children — are concerned about our tech-free policy at first, we find that our participants end up truly enjoying this break, even forgetting about the “disconnect.”

We have never had kids return and comment that they wished they had been able to use their cellphone or iPad. Instead, they gush about the life-changing experience they had, the projects they contributed to, and the community members they connect with.

Providing tweens and teens with the opportunity to be screen-free for a few weeks, to watch them participate in cultural exchanges and be part of something bigger than themselves is extremely rewarding.

I recommend that parents offer this vacation from screens to their kids, and trust the process. I bet they will be amazed by the empowered and enlightened child that returns home at the end of the summer.


News Date
March 23, 2015

VISIONS in The New York Times