Camp Kivu’s Quest to Get Depressed Teens to Disconnect From Social Media

The way to beat teen depression is kicking the online addiction. By Nina Strochlic.

Owen Franken / Corbis

When a camper’s dad unexpectedly died last month, Andy Braner didn’t send him a condolence email or Facebook message. He got on a plane and flew from Colorado to Texas to be with the grieving teen. For Braner, social media is a means to an end, not a primary tool for building relationships. But it has been misused, and teens are in trouble.

“If you ask a teenager who’s really gonna be there with you, they struggle to name people that they call on when life gets really hard,” he says. Braner’s new book, Alone, highlights what he views as the biggest cause of loneliness: Facebook, Twitter, and sites that that aim to bring us together. If you ask Braner, social networks are really keep us apart.

Andy Braner knows teens. He’s seen 20,000, by his estimate, since starting his Colorado adventure sleepaway camp, Kivu, in 2001. And in the past few years, he says he’s seen depression among the kids attending his two-week summer program that aims to disconnect teens from the online world and reconnect them to real life.

First, cellphones get locked in a box. “It’s amazing when their term is over and we give them back the iPhones and iPods, and it’s like crack addicts back on the rocks,” he says with a laugh. Campers spend each session in intense drills that foster bonding, from heart-to-heart conversations inside the cabin to Jet Skiing on the lake. Kivu also organizes gap-year internship programs to help teens decide what career path interests them, along with overseas volunteer trips.

“If you look at what Facebook’s done to what I call friendship, we’ve created this illusion of friendship with a click and a ‘like,’ especially in this young generation of students who don’t know life without social media,” Braner says. For kids entering their teens, social networking is not a new creation, it’s the norm, and that’s the problem, says Braner. This generation doesn’t know friendship without an online component, and many rely on it for needs that are better suited in a human-to-human interaction.

In May, The Atlantic published an article entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” that scolded the culture surrounding the social-media site that posed as true friendship. “We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier,” writer Stephen Marche argued. “In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: The more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”

If it sounds counterintuitive, that’s because it is. Why would a tool that keeps you connected at all times contribute to loneliness? Dr. Gwenn O’Keefe, a pediatrician and author of CyberSafe, first began to research Facebook depression in 2011. She says that the social skills of the young generations growing up with Facebook fully integrated into every aspect of life are being detrimentally affected. “Because they’re so connected to communication that isn’t face to face and live, so to speak, we have to somehow get them better sense of balance, so if they’re faced with something that there can’t be a plug for, they know how to negotiate it,” she says. “The more people using Facebook and the more disjointed our lives are these days, people text and Facebook post, they don’t call each other and get together for coffee anymore.”

“It’s really hard to form good friendships out of Facebook, especially in middle school and early high school,” says Phil Gibson, a sophomore at University of San Francisco and longtime KIVU attendee. He calls the camp “one of the most formative pieces of my life.” He was able to connect on a deeper level with other campers than he could with the kids at his high school because there is “no social outlet than the people right in front of you.” Gibson uses the example of asking someone out on a date as how younger generations turn to nonverbal communication to save face. “It’s hard to know how to act around people now, because the only thing kids know is how to act on Facebook ... because there’s that easy outlet to avoid the awkwardness early on,” he says.

At 35, Braner is far from those angsty teen years, but connects with those wading the rough waters of high school with ease. He was once dubbed the “teen whisperer,” which he does not find cool, saying, “I’ll lose all my street cred if you put that in print!” But his easygoing attitude and teen colloquialisms say otherwise. Just the other weekend, he visited a family struggling with their son’s decision not to attend college. Braner sat him down with an opening line of “You’re an idiot bro. You’ve got to go to school,” and within 15 minutes had the son convinced. At his camp, he hopes to encourage kids on a large scale. “What we’re trying to do is establish connection and relationships to people can see that we’re all valuable at some level, we just got to figure out what that value is and then celebrate those things together,” he says.

An influx of research and studies haven’t quite come to a conclusion about the effect constant connection to social media has on the lives of teens. But it’s worth noting that as a result of the increasingly steep depression rate, teen suicides have tripled since 1960, according to Mental Health America. The disconnect between online friendship and in-person friendship is also more apparent. A June study by Common Sense Media found that 45 percent of teens surveyed prefer in-person conversation while 33 percent would rather text a friend. The study also found 43 percent of teens wished they could unplug from their technology.

O’Keefe is a big fan of what she calls “technology holidays,” where you power down those devices for at least a little while. “Get used to walking to the mailbox and back without it. Once you get used to the fact that the world won’t stop without you having your cellphone, it gets a little easier.” Gibson tries to turn off his phone for a few hours each week and uses Facebook and texting as a supplement to real friendships, not a substitute. “It’s so nice to disconnect in that way so then you don’t have to worry about everybody. I think social media makes us connected to everybody at all times, so it’s hard to be invested in who you are and who’s right in front of you.”

Braner agrees. "Life live together. Enjoy the ride," he says.