Family Matters

How ‘Kidsick’ Parents Stay Connected (Obsessively) with Their Kids in Summer Camp

So much for so long, farewell. When it comes to summer camp, it's parents — not campers — who are increasingly suffering from separation anxiety.

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Mona Daly / Photodisc / Getty Images

Insomnia is a drag, but not if you’re Lauren Rosen. With two kids away from home at a summer camp in Maine, Rosen turns her middle-of-the-night wakings into opportunities to log on and see how they’re doing without her. Just anticipating a glimpse of her children makes her giddy. “If I can’t sleep at 3 a.m., I will check,” says the Massachusetts mom, who keeps her iPad next to her bed for this purpose.

When she spots them in camp photos posted online, the content analysis begins: is her son by himself or in a group? Does her daughter look happy or sad? Who braided her hair? And what’s that bandage around his ankle? Says Rosen: “I totally am stalking my kids.”

Summertime’s rite of passage — sleepaway camp — looks very different than it did a generation ago. No longer are children’s weeks away marked by subdued parental longing and the occasional piece of snail mail. Camp used to be a place kids went to learn self-reliance and discover themselves away from the watchful eyes of mom and dad, but now technology is allowing parents to keep tabs on their kids even from afar.

In a nod to helicopter parents’ inability to cut the cord, overnight summer camps are hiring staffers to take pictures of campers and post them on their websites or on their Facebook pages, or on the website of Bunk1, a service that hosts camp photos, facilitates emails between campers and their parents and exists solely to allay — or feed — parental anxiety.

(MORE: Back Off, Mom. Parents Who Hover Impede Kids’ Activity)

Ari Ackerman wrote the business plan for Bunk1 in graduate school as a “one-way window into the camp world.” He started in 2000 with fewer than 100 camps. By the next summer, he says, every mom who had access to her kids’ photos had told her friends; those friends, in turn, beseeched their camps to participate, quadrupling the number of camps in a year. More than 1,000 camps have since signed up. “Parents live for this,” says Ackerman. Photo galleries are the most popular offering, but Bunk1’s email service isn’t far behind. Parents pay per email, more to add cutesie borders, include the previous night’s baseball box scores or — new this year — the three most recent tweets from their kid’s fave Twitter personality. As you might imagine, Justin Bieber is hot.

Though parents, for the most part, are gaga over the opportunity to peer into their kids’ days, camp directors aren’t quite as thrilled. “In the beginning, it was like, Wow, how cool,” says Sam Perlin, director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Wash. “Now I spend much of my day answering phone calls from parents who say, I don’t see a picture of my kid, or, They’re not smiling — are they having a good time?”

On the other hand, pictures of kids — when they are smiling — make for good advertisements. In reality, Perlin has little choice: his competitors post photos so he’s got to follow suit. “We send our kids away because we want them to have an experience, but this is the information age,” says Perlin. “Parents are used to being constantly connected.”

The allure is pretty irresistible. At the end of June, my 7-year-old gallivanted off to Schechter for her inaugural camp adventure. Camp was her idea; I shed some tears saying goodbye, but she looked so excited that my waterworks quickly stopped. I wasn’t worried about her in the slightest — she was there just four nights, after all — but once I found out photos were posted daily, it was like a drug. Were those her curls in the upper righthand corner of one shot? Was that her arm? When I positively IDed her derriere at the beach, I called out to my husband. “I found Shira’s tush!” I exclaimed. “How can you tell?” he asked. “I’d know that tush anywhere,” I explained. “Plus, that’s the bathing suit I packed her.”

(MORE: Growing Up: Free-Range Kids or Smother Mother?)

But might there be harm in not letting go? Recently, a blog made the rounds of camp parents. In it, Hollee Actman Becker notes “the irony of confiscating your kids electronics and sending them off into a wi-fi free zone, only to spend the summer obsessed with electronics yourself.” But we’re already a snap-happy culture, digitally imaging our kids from the first ultrasound. And the emails — at least at most camps — go only from parent to child, so it’s not as if kids are spending time plugged in.

Still, psychologist Michael Thompson, who wrote Homesick and Happy about the importance of summer camp, thinks that scrutinizing photos and sending emails is counterintuitive. “You can’t have your child away from you at camp physically but attached to you psychologically,” says Thompson. “That’s missing the point.”

Good luck persuading parents. As Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, observes: “It’s not the kids who are homesick. It’s the parents who are kidsick.”