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    Beyond the Screen: The Importance of Unplugging from Technology During Teen Summer Service

    Posted February 20, 2024, 3:35 pm by Owen Clarke
    summer service students holding puppies

    The benefits of volunteering and spending time outdoors—especially in an entirely new environment, outside of one’s comfort zone—are extensive and well-documented, particularly for young people. Summer service projects for high school students foster these benefits in a deep, meaningful manner, resulting in lasting impact. 

    Unlike other volunteer opportunities for high schoolers, such as after-school outings and weekend volunteering, lengthier summer service trips give teens the time and space to dive wholeheartedly into an experience and put down roots, building sincere relationships with people and places over an extended period.

    A 2019 publication by the National Academies (Shaping Summertime Experiences) found that summer service programs offer numerous tangible benefits for young people. These can be both physical and mental. Some of the recorded benefits include improved blood pressure, BMI, and aerobic fitness, reduced levels of anxiety and depression, and boosted social skills, empathy, self-esteem, and leadership. 

    That said, there are obstacles to achieving these benefits from summer service trips. One of the biggest is technology. 

    In the last 15-20 years, technology has become an extension of the self, almost like a third arm. Many children have never experienced life without a smartphone in hand and WiFi connectivity or cell service in the background.

    Exacerbating this issue is the fact that technology is intertwined with school, home, and social life. Homework and studying (and sometimes even testing) is done online. Public and private schools routinely issue laptops instead of textbooks. Connecting with friends, keeping in touch with distant relatives, and playing games in free time… it’s all done online, too.

    To some extent, a level of comfort and expertise with technology is necessary, because tech use is required in many modern professions. Unfortunately, overreliance on technology is also detrimental to the mental and emotional development of teens. It has a particularly negative effect on summer service adventures—which, as we mentioned above—can otherwise be so positive and transformative.


    At VISIONS Service Adventures, we’re outspoken in our belief that summer service should be 100% tech-free. 


    In our 30+ years of operation in countries around the world, we’ve always kept a strict no-technology policy during our programs. (Except for non-phone cameras!) 

    Not only does this maintain the quality and impact of our programs for all involved, but learning how to live without technology has lasting positive benefits for our teenage participants. In this article, we’ll explain why.

    summer service students building housing

    VISIONS and Our Tech-Free History

    This “Tech-Free” policy might seem dramatic, but it simply comes from longstanding observations gleaned after working with young people in cross-cultural settings for many decades. (We’ve operated trips around the world since the late 1980s!). 

    As mentioned above, when teens put phones away, it boosts almost every positive benefit of the service trip. It’s easier for teens to connect with new friends, community partners, and their surroundings. They dive more into the work at hand, become more comfortable with their new “community,” and begin to open up to a new way of living and the lessons they can glean from it. 

    Screen time hiatus is often a habit teens stick with upon returning home. Parents and kids often contact us well after their service trip has ended, mentioning that because of our tech-free policy, they’ve curbed screen time or canceled social media accounts. Many former participants report improved mental and emotional health, too!


    Highlighting the Gap 

    Meaningful service is also about connecting with individuals from other backgrounds and cultures. Bringing tech along often highlights the economic gap between us and local residents (who may have fewer resources than we do). This creates a chasm where we want a bridge, making it harder to bond and develop authentic relationships. 


    Pros and Cons 

    We don’t believe technology is all bad. Technology is key to many modern professions. It connects people across vast distances, creates opportunities, and expands access to important ideas and alternative viewpoints. However, we have to weigh the benefits of technology against the costs.

    At VISIONS, we believe living, working, and spending time with new friends in an unfamiliar culture—without the distraction of personal technology—enhances the vivid memories and deep connections that nurture young people during our service adventures.


    5 More Reasons Tech Free Is the Way to Be

    Enhanced Social Interactions: Without the distraction of smartphones, teens are more likely to engage in face-to-face conversations, fostering deeper connections with peers and the communities they’re serving. This leads to more meaningful relationships and a stronger sense of teamwork and camaraderie.


    Increased Engagement with the Environment: Being tech-free also encourages teens to be more present and engaged with their environment and the activities at hand. This heightened awareness promotes environmental stewardship and enhances the teens’ appreciation for nature (if the service trip has an environmental element). Regardless, it provides a more immersive and engaged experience, whether the trip has an ecological focus or not.


    Improved Mental Health: Disconnecting from digital devices, especially social media, significantly reduces stress and anxiety levels (in adults as well as teens). This means the constant pressure to be online and compare oneself with others is lifted during the service trip, allowing teens to focus on the present moment and find satisfaction in real-world accomplishments.


    Development of Life Skills: Good service trips present challenges requiring critical thinking, problem-solving, grit, leadership, and adaptability. Without the crutch of technology, teens are pushed to develop and rely on these essential life skills, which are crucial for both personal and professional growth.


    Greater Focus on Service Goals: Without the constant notifications and distractions of technology, teens focus more on the goals of the service trip. This leads to a deeper bond with the host community, a stronger commitment to the service projects they're working towards, and a more impactful and fulfilling experience overall!

    A VISIONS Summer Service Student raising arms to sky.

    How To Find a Program with a Good Tech Policy

    There are thousands of summer service trip opportunities for teens, from academic-focused experiences to ones revolving around physical activities like hiking, sailing, kayaking, or rock climbing. There are also service opportunities focused on cultural immersion, art, history, cuisine, environmental education, and more.

    Despite all this diversity, most tech policies are fairly black and white. Individual technology policies at every summer service program will differ slightly, but generally speaking, it’s clear cut. Technology is either allowed or it isn’t.

    Where programs differ is on how they enforce their policies. Some have seemingly strict tech policies on the surface, but do little to enforce them. So when you're trying to find a summer service program with a tech policy you feel comfortable with, do enough research to get a feel for the program’s philosophy and goals, not just their stated “policy.”

    Take time to clarify you and your teen’s dreams and goals for the summer. 

    If these goals for a summer service trip are growth, connection, and adventure…rest assured that you’ll find all of those in places where technology is not!


    Interested in learning more about a tech-free summer service program? Discover VISIONS Service Adventures

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    Owen Clarke

    Owen Clarke

    Owen Clarke is an adventure travel journalist working as a writer for VISIONS.