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Quin Boucher regularly e-mails or instant-messages his mother in the kitchen from his bedroom four stories above. At 14, he's a child of the wired generation, attending a special technology high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., talking to classmates by cell phone or IM, and firing up his Sony PlayStation to play Tony Hawk's Underground. "He's a real screen kid," Rebecca Boucher says, so when it came time to choose a summer camp, her first priority was clear: "I want to unplug him for the summer."
Boucher chose Windsor Mountain International, nestled in a New Hampshire lakeside forest, where counselors promise kids will forgo playing with Game Boys and surfing the World Wide Web in favor of rowing boats, roasting marshmallows, and singing songs over evening campfires. Last summer Quin practiced sign language, played capture the flag, and tipped his friends' boats, dousing them in the clear lake waters. As for life without the laptop? Says Quin: "After a while, it becomes natural."
In past generations, camp was a summer refuge where city and suburban kids could shed the grime of urban life and the boob tube. Over the last decade, however, camp has grown into a $19.8 billion industry serving nearly 12 million kids and is more than ever focused on specialties -- from the popular (soccer, computers) to the obscure (fencing, yoga) -- that bolster college applications or win sports scholarships. Whatever the focus, camps teaching specific skills have won points with baby boomer parents by playing up the idea that their kids will be higher achievers.
Now, as some parents grow concerned about how much their children rely on their gadgets and are affected by the high stress levels of their overscheduled lives, a growing number are looking to summer camp as an opportunity for their kids to build social skills outside of cyberspace. And instead of complaining about the tech detox, many kids, including Quin, say they look forward to the respite. It's a desire to which camps are increasingly marketing. "We'll teach them to rely on their imaginations for entertainment," says Richard Herman, director of Windsor Mountain, formerly Interlocken.
Are parents' concerns about kids being too wired legitimate? According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 87% of American teens surf the Net. On average, kids devoted 6 hours and 21 minutes a day last year to media use outside of school, including TV, video games, and the Net, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Most experts agree technology is a great thing, enabling kids to access more information and connect to more people than ever before. But as the first completely wired generation enters their early twenties, the jury is out on how all that cyber-communicating is affecting their ability to socialize face-to-face. "Everything needs balance," says Harvard University child psychology professor Dan Kindlon, who wrote Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. "If your kid's on the computer 24/7, that's probably not a good thing."
A no-tech or low-tech experience is the selling point for these camps. And the number of new camps that limit gadgets and electronic communication is on the rise. While 9 in 10 camps allow parents to send e-mails, almost none allow kids to write back over the Internet. Some 90% of camps don't allow cell phones, according to the American Camp Assn. (ACA). "We try to tell parents an e-mail doesn't smell like mom's perfume," says ACA spokesperson Marla Coleman, who also runs Long Island-based Coleman Family Camps.
Farm & wilderness, a Vermont cluster of six camps, takes simplicity to the extreme. Two years ago, camp brochures adopted the slogan "Unplugged and Unforgettable." Director Rob Schultz refers to cabins without electricity as "an automatic firewall" for modern gadgets. Per Quaker tradition, campers start each day with at least 30 minutes of silent reflection, and they don't even wear watches, instead waiting for a camp bell to signal a new activity. "We want kids to learn to do what they're doing while they're doing it, to focus," he says.
A brief Luddite existence often appeals to exhausted multitasking kids as well as their parents. Potomac (Md.) teen Eliza Kanovsky, 17, has a hefty list of extracurriculars. And she does three things at any given time, even when she's relaxing. "While I'm on the computer, I'm usually also watching TV and talking on the phone," she says. So she looks forward to summer exploration programs through Colorado-based America's Adventure Ventures Everywhere. Last summer she went to Ecuador to repair trails and sail through the Galapagos Islands.
Similarly, the Island School offers a semester-long trip to a Bahamian island for courses, volunteer work, and sports. Students are allowed one 15-minute phone call a week, says staffer Karla Cosgriff. "You never hear the students say, 'God I wish I could e-mail somebody,"' says Cosgriff. Instead, alumni adopt a wistful tone when talking about the time they lived 12 entire weeks without the Internet.
The tech break might be nice, but old habits die hard. Erica Howe, an 18-year-old from Chatham, N.J., has spent the past four summers living without electricity through Farm & Wilderness camps. "When I get home, I'm like, I don't want to turn on the TV and I hate the computer," she says, a sentiment that never lasts long. Within two days she has received more than 20 messages from her newest set of online pals, her camp friends.
By Jessi Hempel in New York