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Jewish World Review Aug. 27, 1999 /15 Elul, 5759

Bob Greene

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Fun and games at Camp Umbilical Cord --
AS SUMMER makes its wistful turn into the home stretch -- glancing over its shoulder for a final few looks at what was and what might have been -- several rituals of the end of the season are beginning to be seen.

The days growing shorter. The first traces of chill in the evening air. Back-to-school signs going up in store windows. Children returning home from summer camp, to be greeted by parents who haven't seen their faces for weeks on end. . . .

Well, forget that last one.

The children are coming home from camp, all right.

But at some camps -- and there's no way the number is not going to grow next year -- just about everything the boys and girls have done has been witnessed by their parents, many miles away. Hot dog roasts, canoe trips, campfire singalongs, cabin-against-cabin games. . . .

When the children burst into the house to excitedly tell the parents what it has all been like, the parents will already have taken a look.


The Internet, of course.

This is getting out of hand.

Camp Pinehurst, in Raymond, Maine, seems to be the pioneer in this dubious new trend. Jack Curtis, the camp director, also is the camp's "cyberphotographer."

What this has meant is that all summer, at the end of each camp day, Curtis would post on the camp's Internet site photos of the campers doing whatever it is they had done that day.

And, at their homes, the parents would click on and take a look. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, little Billy may have smeared ice cream all over his face to make the kid next to him laugh; by 8 o'clock that night, parents of the children at Camp Pinehurst would be sitting at home looking at Billy's gooey face.

Uh . . . is this a good idea? Has not summer camp always been the place for children to be on their own for the first time -- out of the constant surveillance of their parents' eyes, living out the thrilling experience of at last having the illusion of being on their own? Without mom and dad checking out everything they do?

"It used to be that the worry was that kids get homesick for their parents," camp director Curtis said. "Now, it's that the parents are homesick for their kids."

So the kids -- the visual images of them -- are delivered daily to the parents via cyberspace.

"The parents love it because they get to check in on their kids," Curtis said. "The kids love it because they get to mug for the camera."

What would seem to be missing here is the idea of . . . well, to coin a phrase, wilderness. Being out there alone and on your own -- or at least letting yourself think that you are. Counselors and adult camp personnel have always been responsible for campers' well-being, of course -- but the boys and girls got to believe that they had left home behind -- along with mom's and dad's prying eyes -- for a few weeks.

But the world, as you may have noticed, has changed. Bob Schultz, spokesman for the American Camping Association, said, "Parents are increasingly concerned about the safety of their children. The most frequently asked question is, `Who will care when we're not there?' This offers an answer to that."

Schultz said that he expects the idea of posting camp pictures on Internet sites will expand: "Parents want to be assured that their children are safe, and this offers some security." But he understands the tradeoff: "We don't want (the camp pictures on Internet sites) to completely limit the experience of letting go for the child. The whole concept of camp is to gain self-confidence, autonomy and independence."

He said that he refers to the idea of camp photos being posted daily on camp Internet sites as "a virtual umbilical cord."

Which is the strength and the weakness of this whole idea. The worldwide computer network -- combined with cellular phone technology -- has already just about done away with the outmoded concept of being out of touch, at least in the adult world; wherever you are, you are connected. Now it is extending to children at camp; cell phones and e-mail linkups are forbidden for campers at most summer camps, but some boys and girls try to sneak them in anyway. The new contraband -- like candy bars hidden under the bunk bed mattress in days of old.

Chances are that this is here to stay. At Camp Pinehurst, according to director Curtis, "Parents' Day was incredible because everyone kept coming up to me and thanking me and saying (the daily photos on the Internet) is such a great idea."

Marshmallow roasts via modem; ghost stories delivered in gigabytes. Lights out, everybody.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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