Disconnecting to Connect with Each Other

By Carolyn Highland, ARCC Leader

Taking Picture with Cell Phone
We collect students’ phones not because we want to torture them or ruin their Snapchat… We take them because we know that they will go home after two or three weeks having had a fuller, richer experience without them.

The moon illuminated the steadiness of the waves, which tickled the sand as they approached our tents, then returned in a slow drawl back out to sea. The beach was quiet and empty, the lush, precipitous mountains standing guard in the background. We clutched a box sparklers and walked out onto the sand. It was fourth of July, nearly the halfway point of our two-week program on the island of Kaua’i. The voices of 13 teenagers rang through the quiet space, about to be filled with light.

As we rifled through the packs of sparklers, passing them out to each student, one of them paused, looking toward Hanalei.

A ways down the beach there was a throng of people we could just barely make out. They were releasing floating paper lanterns into the air. Several at a time, the lanterns rose off the beach, away from the crowd below. We watched, mesmerized, as they made their way into the sky over the bay, all of us feeling compelled to train our eyes on each individual lantern until we couldn’t see it anymore.

The students stood in awe, in silence, watching the tiny lights take flight, feeling the magic of the shared moment that held us all together.

“Wow,” a student murmured after all the lanterns had taken off into the night. “That was one of those moments, huh?”

During the few minutes we watched the lanterns on the beach, no one had a phone out to record it. No one was trying to send a Snapchat or record an Instagram Story. No one was trying to share the moment with the outside world. It was live, three-dimensional, belonging only to the fifteen people with their feet in the sand. And the moment would stay with us long after the lights had gone out.

ARCC programs are not so much trips, but rather, temporary portable universes. They are fleeting, unique, self-contained. Bonds are formed that belie the amount of time participants have spent together. We reach levels of depth and self-reflection and growth that are not easy to come by in regular, daily life. The programs are this way by design; on purpose. They are this way because participants are encouraged to be present, to look their group members in the eyes, to interact only with what is immediately around them. They maintain this focus because for the entire time, students are without their cell phones.

We collect students’ phones not because we want to torture them or ruin their Snapchat streaks or keep their parents in the dark. We hold them because we know that they will go home after two or three weeks having had a fuller, richer experience without them. We know that they will leave with lifelong friends, with indelible memories, with a new perspective on travel and what it means to engage with the world around them.

ARCC leaders prepare for their summer trips in a similar fashion, in a similar ephemeral universe. We hold our week-long staff training at a campground with no service, forcing us to simply be with one another. And what we are able to take away from that week is infinitely more powerful than if we constantly had one foot in our other lives or one hand on our cell phones. So when it comes time to collect students’ cell phones at the beginning of a program, we viscerally understand the purpose in doing so.

The University of Michigan recently conducted a survey of 8th, 10th and 12th grade students that demonstrated a drop in psychological well-being the more hours per week students spent on screens. This includes time spent on the internet, social media apps, texting, videogames, and videochats. Higher levels of screen time have been linked to anxiety and depression in teenagers. The same study tracked correlations between reported happiness and non-screen based pursuits such as physical activity and face-to-face social interactions.

On Kaua’i we were fortunate to have a significant amount of down time at Waipa, our jaw-droppingly gorgeous campsite on Hanalei Bay. Instead of students retreating into their own spaces to check in back home on their phones, they swam in the waves for hours and had meaningful conversations on beach towels; they became a family.

ARCC programs are about cultural immersion, service learning, and adventure sports, but at their most base level they are about human connection—with others and with yourself. On our last night on Kaua’i, we sat on the grass under the palm trees for hours and shared all the things we appreciated about one another. It is a time to acknowledge the light we see in one another, and to understand the light we possess within ourselves. The connections that have been forged throughout the short amount of time spent together are visible, audible, palpable. And they would be impossible without the amount of intentional, meaningful person-to-person interaction that an ARCC trip fosters on a daily basis. They would be impossible if students were only half-in.

And so when we ask for students’ phones that first day in the airport, when all of the things that are about to be are still glimmering unknowns, we know that while it may seem like we are taking something away, we are actually giving.


ARCC Programs has offered summer travel programs for teens for over 35 years. With travel programs for teens on six continents, there is something for everyone. Find a summer program on our website or request a catalog today.