Sleep-away camps around the country have started using facial-recognition techniques to identify campers in photos and dispatch these to their parents. The Washington Post recently wrote about the phenomenon, interviewing a dad whose phone rings about 10 times a day with pictures of his daughters at their camp. Thus, said Post reported, Papa gets to be part of the fun “whenever one of his girls is photographed enjoying their newfound independence, going water-skiing or making a new friend.”
The problem with this is the word “independence.” Are you really independent if your parents are watching everything you do, from learning a new skill to making a friend? Basically, a “service” like this means one thing: We are telling kids they have no right to any privacy—like prisoners.
The reason so many people remember sleep-away camp so deeply and gratefully is that it was a place of growth. You could go there and become someone new. If you were tormented at school, or just wanted a fresh start, camp was a place you could become another self—even your true self. Why?
Because you were not at home. You were unmoored, unshackled from the person everyone “knew” you were. My husband told me that he had a girlfriend at camp three years before he had anything to do with girls back home. Camp was a chrysalis where you morphed.
Spying on kids, which is what facial recognition is, means kids do not get away much more than if their parents saw them 10 times a day at home. With the facial recognition photos, parents can watch what their kids are doing, who they’re with, how they’re reacting. It’s like the panopticon. There is nowhere to hide—nowhere to grow.
The idea that this is nothing more than sending some happy photos to Mom and Dad is deeply cynical. How would any of the camp owners—or parents—like to be photographed and scrutinized throughout their day? How would they have liked it when they were kids?
Viscerally, we despise Big Brother. We look down on China, for instance, for working on its “social credit” system, which will eventually track and grade citizens on everything they do, say, visit, read. How dare the government scrutinize its people’s private lives!
And yet, somehow, we don’t question camps serving up photos of what kids are doing all day long, as if this isn’t invasive as well, as if the photos are nothing more than mementos, rather than forensic evidence of the child’s camp experience.
And irony of ironies, on the flip side, this “reassuring” technology proffered up to parents is going to drive them crazy. “Why isn’t she smiling in that photo?” “He isn’t sitting next to anyone at the campfire!” “Oh my gosh! Is that a rash?” Sleep-away camp used to give parents a break from the sorrows of hypervigilance, too. Now that’s gone like a marshmallow fallen into the fire.
For camp to retain its magical powers of transformation, it cannot stream children’s lives to parents’ phones. Sleep-away camp has “away” in its name. Keep it that way.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”