Reimagining Childhood: A Leadership Challenge in the Digital Age

Mar 29, 2024 7 Min Read
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Empowering the Next Generation: The Magic of Phone-Free Youth and Space Camps"

Unlock the secret to a healthier, happier childhood with gadget-free camps. Learn how disconnecting from digital devices in favor of real-world play can reverse the tide of anxiety and depression among children

A few days ago, I was in Kundasang, Sabah, with the head of MAD Movement, Aaron Dason. Over coffee with the beauty of Mount Kinabalu’s sunset in front of us , Aaron shared how he was driving the compelling vision of MAD Movement which he leads—one that inspired our original work at Leaderonomics. It's about leveraging the untapped potential of youth camps as allies in reversing the worrying trends of anxiety and depression among our youth— a vision that resonates with many parents who are dealing with numerous cases of anxiety and numerous disorders with their teenagers. 

Imagine this: a world where children swap their smartphones for playing physical games, digital screens for hiking and adventure, and online chats for real-world chit-chats around campfires and listening to ghost stories with their facilitators. That’s the magic of camps! They offer a detox from digital overload and a revival of playful, real-world experiences. If you're a parent, Aaron’s narrative is a clarion call to consider the transformative experience of sleepaway camps. In fact, just this week, I was with Danny Kim, an amazing innovator, who is now bringing Space camps, via SpaceQuest Asia to Malaysia.

The Journey to "Unplug": A Personal Odyssey

Back in 2007, we ran our first youth camp as part of Leaderonomics community set-up stage and there was hardly a camper that had a mobile phone (Leaderonomics Community was later rebranded as MAD Movement). Little did I know, the digital dilemma was about to escalate. Fast forward to a recent camp we had in Tawau, where numerous kids could be seen with mobile devices.  And more alarming, numerous cases of mental health issues faced by our kids today and significant challenges imposed on parenting by these mobile devices.

Outdoor camps, with their unique blend of real-world experiences and community building, stand as beacons of hope. They're not just about fun and games; they’re about fortifying our children against the storms of overprotection and digital isolation. 

Jonathan Haidt & His Work

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist renowned for his exploration into the effects of social media and mobile devices on the mental health of children and adolescents. His work, particularly highlighted in his book "The Coddling of the American Mind," co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, delves into the rise of what they term "safetyism" and its impacts on youth mental health and resilience. This body of work, alongside his other contributions, offers profound insights into the challenges facing today's younger generations and proposes pathways towards healthier development.

As I was reading and understanding his work, these are the core ideas that I was able to extract from Haidt's research. The key ones include:

  • The Rise of Safetyism: Haidt discusses how an overemphasis on protecting children from harm—both physical and emotional—has led to a generation that is less resilient and more susceptible to anxiety and depression. This concept of "safetyism" refers to the belief that people should be shielded from words, ideas, and experiences that might cause emotional discomfort, leading to environments where children are less exposed to challenges and failures. 
  • The Impact of Social Media: Haidt has been vocal about the negative effects of social media on children and teenagers. He argues that the introduction of smartphones and the rise of social media platforms have fundamentally altered the social landscape for young people, leading to increased loneliness, anxiety, and depression. He notes that these platforms often exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and alienation, as they emphasize comparison and the pursuit of digital validation.
  • The Importance of Free Play: Echoing developmental psychologists, Haidt underscores the significance of unstructured play in building resilience, social skills, and problem-solving abilities. He points out that the decline of free play, partially due to the rise of digital entertainment and overprotective parenting, has deprived children of essential learning experiences. 
  • The Role of Camps: In the context of Haidt's broader concerns, summer camps—especially those that enforce a "phone-free" policy—emerge as vital institutions for counteracting some of the trends he identifies. Camps provide a unique setting where children can engage in face-to-face interactions, participate in physical activities, and develop independence away from the digital world. These experiences are aligned with Haidt's advocacy for more real-world socialization, independence, and resilience-building among youth.

Some of the key implications and takeaway that I got reading his work include the following:

  1. The clear need for parents and teachers to promoting Resilience: Encouraging environments that allow for risk-taking, failure, and the development of coping strategies are essential for building resilience in young people.
  2. Balancing Digital and Real-World Experiences: It's crucial to find a balance between digital engagement and real-world interactions to ensure the healthy social and emotional development of children. 
  3. Fostering Community and Connection: Creating spaces—like camps or teams and groups—that foster a sense of community, teamwork, and belonging can help mitigate the isolating effects of social media.

The Playful Antidote: Harnessing the Power of Summer Camps

In Summary, why are our children besieged by a torrent of mental health challenges? Haidt points to the erosion of play-based childhoods and the ascendancy of digital domains—environments that, while seemingly connective, foster loneliness and anxiety. Here’s where the narrative takes a hopeful turn.

Introducing the unsung hero in our tale: the phone-free, play-full outdoor camps. Aaron Dason, as a camp professional, told me he is not just a facilitators of fun and learning; he and the MAD movement team are architects of resilience, building environments where children and youth can thrive away from the glare of screens. Camps embody the essence of a play-based childhood, offering a sanctuary where kids can explore, grow, and connect in meaningful ways.

Roshan and Aaron in Mount Kinabalu

With MAD Movement leader, Aaron Dason, at the base area of Mount Kinabalu in Kundasang, overlooking Mount Kinabalu in the background

Camps: The Laboratories of Life

At camp, technology takes a backseat to human connections. Activities brimming with novelty and creativity beckon children to engage, learn, and laugh in ways that screens never could. Facilitators (or counsellors as they are sometimes know in other camps), embodying the cool factor, offer mentorship that inspires courage and confidence.

But it’s not just about the absence of technology or the fun activities; it’s about the creation of deep, meaningful communities. Camps offer a microcosm of life’s broader lessons, teaching children resilience, independence, and the joy of authentic connections. Personally, I attended camps every year as a youth growing up, and till today, I am still connected and in touch with some of the campers I interacted with at those camps, almost 40-45 years ago.  We continue to be a community connected by those early youth interactions and activities.

A Call to Adventure

Our journey doesn’t end here. As we look to the horizon, we see camps not as mere retreats from technology, but as crucibles for forging stronger, happier children. Through adventures, challenges, and the triumphs of communal living, camps equip our young with the tools to navigate life’s complexities.

In an era where digital immersion and overprotection threaten to stifle our children’s growth, camps emerge as sanctuaries of strength and self-discovery. They remind us that the best way to prepare our children for the world is not by shielding them from it, but by empowering them to engage with it, fully and fearlessly.

As I once shared a number of years ago during a Q&A session about parenting and allowing kids to explore and take risk, amidst my concerns about our digital dependencies, I harboured a steadfast belief in the transformative power of camps. That belief has only deepened with time. Our children don’t just deserve a break from their screens; they deserve the chance to reclaim childhood itself—to live out the empowering realisation that life isn’t about surviving the digital deluge but thriving beyond it.

In this leadership journey toward reimagining our children’s youth, let us not forget the enduring power of play, community, and the natural world. The campfire beckons, offering a light in the digital darkness—a beacon of hope for this depressed, anxious-filled and mentally challenged generation.

Note:

If you haven’t signed up your kid for camps this coming summer, a great camp I would recommend would be Danny Kim’s SpaceQuest camp in Kuala Lumpur from July 22-26th. It not only will have elements of adventure, friendship, challenge, bonding and curiosity, it will be filled with enabling your kid to experience the joy of being an innovator and being able to do the impossible.  Check it out at https://www.spacequest.asia/ 

To read this article in Bahasa Malaysia, click here

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com

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