*** Content warning: eating disorders
This summer, I was fortunate enough to work as a camp counselor in Maine with campers ranging from ages 12 to 17. I myself was a camper there for three years beginning at the age of 14. While I went in expecting the job to be challenging, the impact of the pandemic and increased social media use on teens was extremely evident and concerning.
I was placed in a cabin with one other counselor and eleven 14-year-old campers. Since I first went to camp at the same age, I was enthusiastic and confident in my ability to handle what issues I thought a 14-year-old would struggle with. However, the entire camp was overwhelmed with the increase of mental health struggles of campers and the behavior of teens who have been stuck at home for over a year.
As camp counselors, we agree to serve as what we call “in loco parentis,” which is the Latin term for “in place of parents” — I was responsible for these children and their well-being. While adolescence is a common time for body image issues and disordered eating to emerge, I believe the increase in social media use, TikTok in particular, has contributed to a massive increase in these issues among my campers.
This summer, campers of all ages struggled with disordered eating. From what I remember from being a camper six years ago, no one I knew skipped meals or didn’t eat. Counting calories and dieting were never the focal point of any conversation I participated in or action I witnessed. However, as a counselor, every day I saw my campers attempt to skip meals, or they would grab food and just sit staring at it and playing with it.
Public Health junior Samantha Gordon, a University of Michigan student who also worked as an overnight camp counselor this summer with campers ages 13 to 14, explained that “hearing how the campers spoke about food and their bodies for a large part of the summer was very concerning, and it was evident that much of this sentiment stemmed from TikTok and Instagram.”
The rise in eating disorders is likely due to several pandemic-related factors. For the generation of youth who have been stuck at home in front of pixelated screens, mental and physical health consequences that arise must not be ignored. Parents, friends and communities must be aware of the increase in disordered eating issues in teens and must not normalize the toxic culture social media can promote regarding diet and body image.
Similarly, there has been an overall increase in other mental health issues in teens at camp. LSA sophomore Noa Green said, “Many of my campers suffered from issues with mental health. A lot of them have had a rough time during the pandemic, and even though camp is an amazing place to escape to, mental health issues can’t just be dropped at the camp gates.”
While counselors are meant to serve “in loco parentis,” this job often becomes serving as not only a parent, but a friend, sibling, role model and even therapist. As a camp counselor this summer, I had campers struggling with depression, anxiety and even self-harm. It was agreed among the general counselor population that a camper therapist was almost necessary.
On the other hand, LSA junior Zoe Roskin, who worked as a camp counselor this summer with 10-year-olds, explained that she didn’t have any campers with obvious mental health struggles or eating disorders and that this was likely due to her campers being too young to have phones or social media.
Another unexpected challenge was the campers’ lack of independence and self-reliance. From what I recall as a camper, my cabin mates would rarely depend on counselors to figure out how to do things, and we acclimated to camp schedule and lifestyle with relative ease. While this does not apply to all campers, my campers generally complained a great amount about the schedule, the camp food and just about everything else.
“I think the pandemic made everyone so accustomed to being in their own homes with their nuclear families for an extended period of time,” Roskin shared. “When most campers were put in a bunk together as strangers, there was more bickering and hurtful comments exchanged between campers.”
Most of the campers were accustomed to having control over when they ate, what they ate and when they slept or did any activity. With a decrease in extracurricular activities and socialization during the school year due to COVID-19, the kids were overwhelmed and exhausted by the schedule and immense socialization of camp.
“In seeing the campers at the beginning of the summer after they faced a year of social isolation and social media entanglement versus at the end of the summer after they experienced seven weeks of genuine interpersonal relationships void of social media, I saw a drastic transformation in many of the campers’ self-confidence and ability to interact with one another in a healthy way,” Gordon explained. “I saw campers overcome eating disorders this summer because my staff and many of the other campers spoke positively about food and empowered the kids, demonstrating that positive influences really do make a difference.”
Being a camp counselor demonstrated the need for parents and communities to recognize and address how the pandemic and increased social media has affected teens. Since these issues I witnessed at camp are certainly also present on our campus, deliberate action and extensive dialogue is needed to address what many are struggling with. Promoting healthy relationships with food, mental health resources and generally paying attention to the new needs of modern teens are some of the steps we can take to help them.
Lizzy Peppercorn is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.