Playing on Phones

Here’s what I wish. I wish kids could know the thrill of doing the same low-tech stuff we did as kids. Activities that don’t require smartphones.

Such as piling four neighborhood kids onto a skateboard and rolling them down a steep hill like the U.S. Men’s bobsled team. Or picking wild strawberries. Or reading comic books. Or eating live palmetto bugs on a bet.

I’m not saying I want technology to disappear, I don’t. But did you know that the average person checks their phone 96 times per day?

And here’s another one. The average American teen spends a daily average of 7 hours and 22 minutes on their phone.

Which leads me to a friend of mine. He is an amateur behavioral scientist. And by “behavioral scientist” I mean that he is a dad.

This summer after his kids had been trapped at home for COVID, he and a few other dad-scientists did an informal summer camp experiment with their children.

The rules were simple. No phones, tablets, video games, computers, TVs, music, or smartwatches. Instead kids did stuff like archery, leathercraft, wood carving, and basically every other activity modern kids think is stupid.

“Compared to their video games,” said one dad, “it was slow torture at first. They all looked at us like, ‘Archery? Really?’”

Who can blame them? What kid wants to shoot a flimsy fiberglass arrow at a bale of fescue when you could hold a digital plasma laser rifle, slaughtering the undead on planet Zurkon with 2,500 of your closest online friends?

The dad-scientists had their work cut out for them.

Before camp kicked off, kids were unknowingly part of a little preliminary social test. When the children arrived, parents put them in small groups to see what they would do without their phones.

Would the young people naturally strike up conversations? Would they do what generations of our ancestors have done at summer camp, planning pranks involving the deflation of tires on summer-camp busses?

“Nothing happened,” said one dad. “They didn’t even say two words to each other.”

To be fair, talking is not easy for many young people. In a recent study, teens were asked about their favorite way to communicate with other humans. The overwhelming majority admitted that texting was their favorite form of communication.

Which isn’t hard to believe when you consider that the average kid sends somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 texts per month. And in the span of an average lifetime they will spend an estimated 11 or more years on their phone.

On the first night of camp, dads ushered the campers into the cafeteria and it was graveyard quiet. There was little chatter. No laughter. No jokes. Just forks on trays.

The parents admit that they were feeling guilty about this. Their own children were about as socially awkward as a yard of salvaged Buicks.

“I felt so bad for them,” said one parent. “Our kids are missing out on real life.”

But then, this is not a story with a sad ending. Because something started happening at this retreat.

By the second night, when parents were herding kids into the mess hall there was a roaring torrent of young voices.

By the third night, the room was alive with laughs, shouts, and the smell of little-kid sweat.

By the fourth night, everyone was already maintaining eye contact, using body language, and in some cases launching spoonfuls of sloppy Joe filling across the room.

Some campers were reportedly even planning elaborate pranks.

Ah, yes. Pranks. That takes me back. The stories I could tell of past pranks pulled. Like the time we put a glass of rancid milk in camp counselor Murphy’s closet. Or the look on Johnny Tyler’s face when he saw his Fruit of the Looms flying at half mast during morning assembly.

The dad-scientists reported that after five days of tech-fasting, their children were “completely different kids.” They were getting fit, becoming more attentive, and they all had great tans.

Another thing dads noticed was that kids were not nearly as timid about talking to adults—another skill many of them lacked.

And I don’t mean to keep harping on this issue, but do you remember how when you wanted to play with your childhood pals you simply biked over to your friend’s house? Remember how you’d ditch your bike in the front yard, midair, then race up the stoop and knock on the front door?

And THEN do you remember how someone’s mom would ALWAYS answer the door and you would have to TALK to her for upwards of three hours about how your mama was doing and about your granddaddy’s brand new hip?

“Yeah, that rarely happens these days,” said one dad. “My son’s friends don’t want to interact with me.”

But things were shifting. The dad-scientists were thrilled to discover that that their experiment worked. Without phones, kids started changing for the better.

After camp ended, to gauge the experiment’s success, campers were put into groups again, just like before. Dad-scientists observed from afar and found that their children were no longer behaving like disgruntled classical stoics. They were talking, listening, smiling, and wholly engaged.

When campers got their electronic devices back it was with mixed emotions. Everyone agreed that they would really miss living in this tech-free world. And in fact everybody had a difficult time driving away from camp that year. Not only because it had been fun. But because, as it happened, someone had deflated the bus tires.

At least that’s what I wished would have happened.


  1. Jim Perdue - October 29, 2020 10:55 am


  2. Naomi - October 29, 2020 11:24 am

    I am a 76-year-old mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Although I am computer literate and have a cell phone, they don’t take the place of physical, personal interaction with my family. None of them live near me and we go for years without seeing each other in person. Even when we do get to see each other, none of them will put their cell phone down. This technology is even harder on elderly people who don’t have a cell phone and don’t know how to use a computer.

  3. Steve - October 29, 2020 11:58 am

    Remember when they told our generation television would rot our brains?
    Fast forward to the enticing, brain washing cell phone.
    My, how we have evolved………

  4. niobrarariverrat - October 29, 2020 1:38 pm

    I love this!

  5. HT - October 29, 2020 2:46 pm

    I can see it now…expensive week long no tech camps popping up post covid to help ‘reSocialize’ a the nation…considering my prank

  6. Jim Morris - October 29, 2020 3:09 pm

    What a great idea…I have a feeling it would really work…really!!

  7. Paul - October 29, 2020 3:22 pm

    It’s all true Sean Even as I put this message out on my I phone. Adults are suffering too. But we will never get the genie back in the bottle. In time it may correct itself. It’s really all we can hope for.

  8. Ann - October 29, 2020 3:39 pm

    If only……….this is all so very true and parents have to be ready to do the same.

  9. Linda Moon - October 29, 2020 5:59 pm

    I have a smart brain. I have no need for a “smart” phone. My brilliant and talented young Gingerhead has forsworn his “smart” telephone. Today, your word-count for us smart readers is 2,345,479….most of them initiated by you, plus my addition of one more word daily that ensures that you will never stop writing and interacting with us. Harp away, Angel!

  10. Jane - October 29, 2020 6:02 pm

    Wonderful experiment. Kudos to the dad-scientists.

  11. Ann Gramlich - October 29, 2020 6:42 pm

    How true !! How true! You got right down to the nitty-gritty..

  12. Ann Gramlich - October 29, 2020 6:48 pm

    How true !! How true !! You got right down to the nitty-gritty . It is so sad to see kids NOT making eye contact.

  13. nebraskannie - October 29, 2020 7:29 pm

    I’m an old lady who has cared for our great nephew for 5 years. No screen allowed at our house unless you’re throwing up, or I’m too tired to get an actual book, and read an ebook to him. The result is he’s smarter than his class, knew how to read before school, knows how to problem solve and is just as happy and involved by himself as he is with friends. He still asks for nature walks. He’s finally started kindergarten and for the first time turned off the phone when he didn’t want to talk to me about what he’d done wrong. Think he’s getting it? LOL

  14. jstephenw - October 30, 2020 4:54 am

    Great piece Sean. I have noticed a change in my own grandchildren as my kids limit their screen time, and actually have more family or cousins time, etc.

  15. Christina - October 30, 2020 6:10 am

    What makes me sad about distance learning is the amount of time my kids are in front of the computer screen. What makes me happy is seeing them play basketball outside, catching bugs and riding their bikes. Simple joys that make a big difference!

  16. turtlekid - October 30, 2020 10:58 am

    Very disturbing. I don’t have kids, and didn’t realize they were so addicted to technology. 😢😢😢

  17. Sandi. - October 30, 2020 1:28 pm

    Oh, they are addicted. They truly are. Many teens even date this way now: They sit beside each other and text to and fro with no eye contact, no verbal communication. It’s a crying shame really.

  18. Kelly W - November 1, 2020 3:01 am

    Fun article 🙂

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