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Summer Camp Director Sees Increased Anxiety, Depression in Adolescents

The good news: After challenging years, kids are already showing signs of bouncing back

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Nate Ryan

After 23 years as a camp director, I thought I’d seen it all. I’m no spring chicken. But the last two years have definitely seen an uptick as far as anxiety, depression, things like eating disorders, and the feeling that kids are under enormous pressure. People point to social media and smartphones as the cause, and that’s definitely part of it—the fear of missing out, having everything documented in real time, getting your validations from “likes.” But we don’t allow phones or electronics at camp, and I still see agitation. ​

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​It takes longer than ever for kids to settle down from the outside world. In the first week, they aren’t sleeping as well. They have a much harder time self-soothing. I see some younger teenagers bringing stuffed animals to camp. I think they just can’t turn their brains off, whether it relates to war in Ukraine, climate change or whatever’s going on politically. Comparatively speaking, what I went through growing up in the ’70s’ and ’80s and ’90s, and what earlier camp groups went through the last couple decades—it was a pretty decent time for childhood and adolescence. For these guys, it’s a lot tougher. In some ways it’s unimaginable what this generation has gone through. Kids missing out on proms, graduation ceremonies, an entire freshman year of college and then some. ​

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​We heard so many stories of loss that we decided to stage a goofy camp version of graduation for all the kids who missed theirs. It was silly and informal but we made little diplomas and they wore caps and gowns and we played the commencement song and had a cake after people walked out in a little row. It was surprisingly emotional for me. Granted, they couldn’t have their family there or their teachers but it was an acknowledgment and I could tell they needed it.​

This generation of adolescents will become great problem solvers and very nimble when it comes to change.

​I’m hopeful that these setbacks and challenges will build up skills like resilience and grit that will make this cohort of kids prepared for adulthood in ways we haven’t witnessed before. I see them bouncing back already, and they’ve adapted in ways nobody could have predicted. Kids who were 10 or 11 at the start of the pandemic are going into adolescence knowing how to walk with each other in two different ways. They can either be close or they can walk 6 feet away, at a social distance, and it’s very natural to them. It feels like it was part of their brain development. Does that make them more flexible down the road? Does that open their minds to new challenges? I’m really interested to see. But my intuition is that this generation of adolescents will become great problem solvers and very nimble when it comes to change. They’ve been through so much and that’s bound to shape who they’re going to become. 

Gabe Chernov is the owner and director of Birch Trail, a summer camp for girls in Minong, Wisconsin

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