NEW YORK — Not long ago, parents who sent children to sleep-away camp might wait days or even weeks for a letter. And they'd be lucky if their kids' scribbled notes home said anything beyond "Send candy!" or "I'm homesick."
But now, many camps post photos and even videos online daily so parents can see what kids are doing — everything from cabin life to campfires to canoeing. Camp Dora Golding in Pennsylvania's Poconos Mountains has even launched a cellphone app so parents can easily access pictures on Facebook and Instagram.
"The parents are looking for this so they can know their kids are having a good time," said Elie Rosenfeld, spokesman for Dora Golding. "The camp still encourages kids to write home, but the days of waiting for the mailman to deliver a scribbled letter is long over."
Dora Golding, a Jewish camp in its 89th year, has assigned a staff member full-time to take and post pictures and videos, and a film crew will be shooting and making a weekly video for parents as well.
Elizabeth Lampert of Alamo, California, says online images are "a lifeline" while her 13-year-old attends Camp Timber Ridge in High View, West Virginia. "It definitely allows me to let go," she said. "When I see the joy and happiness, I'm relieved. Almost every day, they would post between 50 and 100 photos. Every day I scroll through, and of course she looks like she's making friends, she's with a million people and I feel better about sending her. I'll see her on the trapeze, softball, kickball — one time I saw her in a hot-air balloon!"
Seeing photos also allows her to "engage" and "share" with her daughter when they're reunited "in a way that you absolutely couldn't before." It's a big contrast from letters that Lampert sent home when she was at camp: "Hi mom, having fun. Send candy. Love, Elizabeth."
Rabbi Jason Miller, who worked for Tamarack Camps in Michigan for five years, says sometimes the effort to keep parents in touch can backfire. When parents can't find their kids in the photo gallery, they get concerned. And if they do see the child, they might call and ask, "'Why is my kid sunburned? Why isn't he with his best friend? Why wasn't he wearing his glasses?'" An animated YouTube video called "Sleep Away Camp" shows a mother who can't stop saying "Refresh" because she spends all day checking a camp website for pictures of her son.
Jenifer Silverman, a New Yorker whose two kids are going to camp this summer, says online images are "good and bad. ... There are hundreds to go through and can drive a person crazy. I have had days where I could not find my daughter and wondered why she wasn't in them." When Silverman does see her child, "I try to read into them too much and look to see if she looks happy or if it looks like something is going on."
Interestingly, while camps are embracing 21st-century technology as a way of communicating with parents, most camps don't let kids use electronics. Many camps let parents email kids — the messages are printed out and distributed — but kids can't email back. So why go to all this trouble with photos?
It's "a service provided to assuage parental anxiety," said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association.
Most camps make photos public on Facebook pages or other social media; parents are asked to sign a release allowing their children to be photographed. If they don't give permission, camps will keep them out of the pictures. But most photos show group activities, so privacy concerns from parents are rare.
Camp Burgess & Hayward, a YMCA facility on Cape Cod in Sandwich, Massachusetts, has been periodically posting images for parents to see for a few years, but last year they began doing it daily. Meghan Hill, director of development, estimates about half the parents take a look every day, and if they ask why their kids haven't shown up in pictures, she reminds them "we're trying to capture what's happening day to day and not specifically any children."
But overall, she says, parents are pleased with the images. "I get more calls saying, 'Oh, I saw a picture on Facebook and it looks like everyone's having the best time.'"