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What’s your unit’s electronics policy?

Should you allow your Scouts to bring their smartphones on camping trips?

Sure, Scouters and Scouts can do it all with these powerful gadgets. A smartphone (or tablet) is a watch, an alarm clock, a digital compass, a camera, a GPS navigator, a Boy Scout Handbooka constellation map, an encyclopedia, and a guide to tying knots—all in one device.

Costs and size are down, while battery life and cell coverage are up.

And with those factors in mind, many troops, teams, and crews now allow Scouts to carry an iPhone, iPad, Android device, Windows Phone, or BlackBerry on campouts—with certain restrictions, of course.

Still, how did Scout units come to that decision? And if Scouts can bring their smartphones or tablets camping, how can you ensure that they don’t abuse the privilege?

To find out, I asked our Facebook fans for their take on the subject. Here’s what I learned:

No electronics. Period.

For some Scouters, it’s a black-and-white issue: No electronics are allowed at Scout events.

  • “If boys want to play with electronics, they should stay home,” says Steve S.
  • “No electronic devices by the boys. Adults can bring phones, but they are to be used for emergencies only. Campouts are a time to enjoy nature and what the good Lord gave us. It also ensures we focus on the basics without the distractions,” adds Charles N.
  • “Scouts don’t need phones. Ask your parents if they had phones back in the day. Scouting is about nature and being one with your surroundings,” shares Jimmy H.
  • “Smartphones have a lot of games on them, and getting the Scouts to pay attention is next to impossible when you’re trying to give instructions and they’re playing on their phones,” Frank M. writes.
  • “All I have to say is” What happens when there is no power? Scouts need to know how to use the basics: map, compass, brain,” says Jim W.
  • “Asking scouts to give up technology for a couple of hours or a weekend will NOT render them incapable of fitting into a tech-savvy society,” says Tammy N.
  • “We allow phones if they pass the camp test. With a tent stake driven through it and it has been submersed in water for 10 minutes, if it still works, sure they can use it,” jokes Jim E.

Only allowed while driving to/from events

Many troops, teams, and crews only allow smartphones, game systems, MP3 players, etc., while driving to and from a campout. During the event, they’re locked in the vehicles.

  • “They can bring it and listen to music during travels, but under NO circumstances is it to be brought out or used during the campout. It will get confiscated and returned when we get home,” says Justin K.
  • “Leave them in the locked vehicles once we arrive at the campsite or trailhead. If you need it to tell the time, then buy a watch,” adds Jason P.

OK, but with certain restrictions

Several Scouters have developed specific, nuanced electronics policies for campouts. There’s even an unofficial “Tech Chip” for Scouts to earn by promising to be responsible users. Only Scouts with the Tech Chip can use electronics in troops that use this strategy.

  • “Our new troop has an electronics policy: Scouts above a certain number of camping nights in the previous year may have electronics. Said electronics must be off and out of use prior to 9 p.m. or end of activities (whichever is later) and after 7 a.m. Exceptions granted for Scouting uses only. This means they can text after activities, check the ballgame scores, or, more commonly, listen to music before sacking out. The restriction on nights camping precludes “new” Scouts from calling home at the first snap of a twig. The right to use electronics can be rescinded as well and the counter reset,” writes Damon E.
  • “I came accross the Tech Chip that was created by Troop 479 in Eden Prairie, Minn. This is NOT an official BSA award. But we have started using in our troop. As technology continues to evolve and become more and more embedded in every part of our lives, Scout leaders need to continue to make use of it. By teaching courteous use, Scouts and adults can take advantage of technology to create a safer outdoors experience without reducing the value of the experience for others,” shares David M.
  • “Electronics should be allowed when appropriate for the activity. Alarm clocks for wakeup, GPSs for geocaching, etc. But let’s face it: many Scouts will lack the discipline to avoid casual texting, music apps, etc. … and few things are more disrespectful than trying to teach a class to Scouts with earbuds in their ears! Units that opt to allow electronics devices should set clear rules with clear consequences,” says Tammy N.

Not just allowed — encouraged!

It’s 2012, and some Scouters said that means we should be embracing technology as an organization. 

  • “For better or worse, these kids are growing up in a generation that is totally ‘connected.’ As much as you may want to change that, you’re fighting an uphill battle. We as leaders need to recognize that “things change, all the time, whether we want them to or not.” Asking our predecessors whether they had cell phones is an apples to oranges comparison — they didn’t exist! As leaders we should not allow our fears, preconceptions, and/or misconceptions drive our dictations to the Scouts. It’ll just be one more reason why youth don’t join,” writes Nic C.
  • “As a Cub Scout leader looking into the future of Scouting, I think we will need to allow them for the sake of keeping current and relavant. Many hiking publications are now recommending that hikers ditch all of their paper maps, separate GPS, and other similar equipment for one “smartphone” or “smart pad” with a solar charger. As always, it may be a challenge to keep the kids from using them for video games, but I think if they are taught how to use them as tools, it will be worth it,” posits Amy I.
  • “Our crew welcomes electronics. Learning when to use them with discretion is a life skill that is good to learn. They are a modern tool that prepares Scouts for today,” saysReggie L.
  • “If you are worried that the boys will spend all day in their tents playing Angry Birds on their phone (or playing Rummy with a deck of cards, for that matter), then the adults and Scout leaders obviously did not have an adequate schedule of activities planned for the trip,” writes Tami D.
  • There is nothing I see wrong with it if they are used respectively. Why not allow our kids to photo and blog the things that make us proud? I don’t think we should have a issue with that,” says Yvette S.
  • “I talked to the Jamboree staff, and cell phones will be allowed at the 2013 National Scout Jamboree. They even have charging stations. I think we should trust the boys — they are Boy Scouts, and they follow the Scout Oath. Talk to them about appropriate uses for their phones. And then embrace technology, and use the phones when appropriate. Plus, as a mother, it makes me feel more comfortable when my son has his phone. He wants to conserve the battery for an emergency, so is not tempted to play games on it,” adds Sheila T. 

Your turn

Which comment(s) above do you agree with? What’s your pack, troop, team, or crew’s policy on smartphones? Continue the discussion by leaving a comment below.


Thanks to Patrick Adams, my first Scoutmaster, for the blog post idea.

Photo by Flickr user tvol.

22 Comments on What’s your unit’s electronics policy?

  1. A major problem with smartphones/cellphones/etc. to me is that they often shut the youth off from interaction with others. Car trips or camping trips have a wonderful ability to bond youth, build friendships, and learn new things. I want to prohibit them on trips.

  2. Our Troop falls in the “only allowed while driving to/from events” category.

    I have a response to Tami D.’s comment. She said, “If you are worried that the boys will spend all day in their tents playing Angry Birds…” With a boy-led Troop, one of the great lessons our junior leaders learn (just about every term, it seems) is the importance of planning activities for troop outings. The post-outing “Start, Stop, Continue” is always interesting. They learn a lot from failing to plan enough to do. We encourage them to think “on the fly” and to be creative. We’d hate inadequate planning to lead to Scouts “playing Angry Birds”. Not allowing electronics removes that temptation.

    Playing cards, on the other hand, is a very social activity and is a great way for the Scouts to build stronger relationships. I can’t tell you how many times a dozen or more Scouts surround a picnic table with a deck of cards during our Troop outings.

    • Shane Morris // March 15, 2012 at 7:51 am // Reply

      Ron, I think Tami’s comment was more directed towards those who claim that the electronic distract from the boy’s ability to enjoy nature. A deck of cards does the same thing.

      Personally, I have nothing against Electronics or Cards on a trip, as long as neither is abused. Some of the most saddening experiences I have had as an adult in scouting have been when the older boys have hurriedly gotten camp set up, just so they could get their card game started. I want to ask them “Did we really just hike 15 miles into the back country so that you could play Euchre?”

      To your other point about socializing – Have you never seen 6 boys huddled around one boy playing? There is a fair about of socializing going on. Boys today talk about video games the way we talked about baseball games. It is part of the fabric of society today.

  3. Bill Wilcox // March 14, 2012 at 4:05 pm // Reply

    I I pretty much agree with the “No electronics period” policy. Scouting outdoor survival skills are to teach youth to survive in the outdoors on what nature pets there!
    By allowing these electronic devices we are simply training our Scouts how not to actually survive in the wilderness. . .far too many things can go wrong!

  4. I want to know how the leader deals with the angry helicopter parent when Johnny Scout loses (or damages or breaks) their expensive smartphone and wants to blame you.

  5. I vote NO. You can not see a bird, a spider web or the edge of a trail (cliff) if your nose is buried in a small screen. I give tours, consisting of a 10 minute boat ride and a 30 to 45 minute tour of a lighthouse. As soon as the kids, and half of the adults get seated they hunch over to keep the sun glare off the small screen..When I point out a, Osprey, perched on the edge of its nest, hardly anyone looks up. It’s RUDE. If the Loch Ness monster or a mermaid went swimming by, they would not see it. If an emergency comes up, then it IS appropriate to break out the electronics. Learn the basic skills, compass reading / navigating, first aid, knot tying, etc. Learn about the world around you by observing it in real time, not on a small screen.
    Steve E. Long Island, NY (E of NYC).

  6. Scoutmaster Dan // March 14, 2012 at 7:34 pm // Reply

    Often electronics can be used to enhance the scouting experience (as described in the article), or improve relationships with others. We don’t prohibit electronics, but sometimes they start taking the focus away from the outing, and scouts are asked to put them away. My view is, these are not children any more, they are young adults and should be treated (trained how to behave) as such. Many adults could use this training too, so lets start training the next generation how to behave appropriately. Getting stuck in the past is not the solution. We need to use the tools we have appropriately.

    • Sadly, adults don’t behave appropriately with their phones. I’ve been in my share of meetings where most of the people spend the entire time texting.

    • How exactly does it “improve” their relationships? With the other boys? Do you know what their texts say? Do you know what pictures or comments they are making to each other? If not, you should check them out. Young adults are 17-20, not 11 through 15 year olds, how do you “train them how to behave appropriately”? Who sets the standard? Who monitors it? What are the consequences for failure? Would really like to hear your answers. Thank you.

  7. Dan Ackerman // March 14, 2012 at 7:58 pm // Reply

    First MB, I always treated it the same way as I would any piece of personal equipment. Parents and the scout were responsible for anything taken on a campout. If they thought their scout was not responsible enough to bring something, they had to be the ones to make sure it wasn’t taken by their child.

    But moreover, I can’t believe a lot of what I am reading here. I was just reviewing the national website to see where the mission statement said we were to training youth how to survive in the wilderness. Couldn’t find it anywhere.

    I did find the Mission Statement.

    The mission of the Boy Scouts of America is to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.

    And the Vision Statement

    The Boy Scouts of America will prepare every eligible youth in America to become a responsible, participating citizen and leader who is guided by the Scout Oath and Law.

    To put this in perspective, I know a unit that doesn’t allow axes. They break them out to teach the basic skills and qualifications. After that they are put away and not used in the program. The reasoning is that they have had accidents with them in the past and realistically, outside of scouts, the boys would never touch an axe in their daily life.

    I’m sure there are a lot of scouters that would argue about that decision. For me it’s the same argument as smart phones. Both are tools and it takes work to train youth how to use them properly. Banning them is just saying that you believe teaching the youth in the program personal responsibility with a tool they use daily is to hard and distracts you from the things you do to have fun.

    I think Baden Powell summed it up best when he said “Let us, therefore, in training our Scouts, keep the higher aims in the forefront, not let ourselves get too absorbed in the steps. Don’t let the technical outweigh the moral. Field efficiency, back woodsmanship, camping, hiking, Good Turns, jamboree comradeship are all means, not the end. The end is CHARACTER with a purpose.”

    • Frances B. // March 19, 2012 at 3:41 pm // Reply

      Dan…VERY well said!

    • Dan, how is allowing a youth to bring his cell phone on a camp out aligning with the vision? “will prepare every eligible youth in America to become a responsible, participating citizen and leader who is guided by the Scout Oath and Law.” How does a cell phone do that for a youth?
      BP was talking about outdoor experiences and developing those skills – intentionally pouring into the life of a youthful man. What I have seen is adults who are all to okay with letting Scouts be on their phones incessantly and then wondering why the kid never looks up or acknowledges anyone or volunteers to help or goes on the hike but would rather game(video) than engage in camping.

  8. How about a regulation for scoutmasters? Should they be required to leave their electronics at home? I was at our district’s round table two nights ago and I think on 3 occasions cell phones or alarms went off. I see adults playing Angry Birds during meetings and myself have checked email on occasion during a meeting to make sure nothing urgent has come from work.

    In our troop there is no set rules on electronics, but I think we fall under the “ok, with restrictions” category. I let the boys use them when they are smart with them and remind them when they are not and have told them to put them away on many occasions. We also use them as tools in the troop. The senior patrol leader only has to adjust the calendar in his pocket and it is instantly synced with boys, their parents and myself. How awesome is that? One time at a church youth gathering (not scouting) one boy wanted to be alone and wandered off but didn’t tell anyone. We were all very concerned and other adults started to look for him. I sent the boy a text message, he alerted me instantly he was safe and ok and he came back 2 minutes later. We also had a boy loose an iPod on a camping trip. He learned the hard lesson that it’s not wise to put a small electronic device in his pocket and then go play games in the woods. I’m sure next iPod he gets he will be much more careful with.

    It’s a hard lesson and takes time away from other things sometimes, but i think it’s better they learn to manage them now and help teach them that, because they don’t figure it out just because they get older.

  9. Frances B. // March 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm // Reply

    How would you handle the scout loosing his scout handbook, mess kit or part of his uniform? This would be handled the same way.

    • Together, the handbook, mess kit and uniform shirt do not add up to the cost of most smartphones.

  10. No electronics. No phone. Having a phone means mummy can call any time to see if poor baby is OK.

  11. I just don’t get the idea of ditching map and compass in favor of a smartphone. A couple serious problems with that idea. First, phones break even more readily than a backpacker’s GPS. Maps don’t break, even if they get wet they can be dried out. About the only thing that make a map non-functional is fire. Secondly, there isn’t cell coverage everywhere.

    We also shouldn’t be teaching a dependence on technology, especially technology that can cease to be useful very quickly.

    Books may be bulky but they still are faster to use than iPhones or iPads. I can flip through 100 pages in the Audobon Field Guide looking for a particular birds while you smartphone guys are still trying to find the app.

    Electronics do little more than provide a distraction. I work with many young people and it is next to impossible to keep them from pulling their phones out every 15 seconds to check their messages. Even the threat of termination doesn’t work. Even terminating a couple didn’t send a message.

  12. ” myself have checked email on occasion during a meeting to make sure nothing urgent has come from work.”

    Remember the good old days when if something happened at work, they called you at home? If you weren’t home, they just tried again and again.

    For too many adults, communications technology hasn’t made their life easier, it just means that they are working 24/7. For most youths and far too many adults, it is also a way to avoid interacting with the people who are in the room with you.

    Common courtesy has vanished with the popularity of the cell phone and has gotten worse with the smartphone. Others have mentioned trying to conduct a class or meeting and seeing everyone fiddling with their phones. How often have we been with a friend who starts yapping on his phone? Few bother to say, “I’m with someone, I’ll call you back.” How about the rude people who insist on chatting on their phones while trying to check out at a store?

    A pox on all of them.

  13. Can’t it be taught to be used as one more tool?

    Don’t we teach how to navigate with and without a compass, with and without a map, cook with and without utensils, camp with and without a tent, improvise first aid and perform first aid with a full kit?

    If we teach them how and when to use it they will develop moderation themselves.

    No matter what rules you put in place they will find ways around them, but challenge them to figure out how to use a tool and what to do without one will challenge their creativity, encourage them to value the tool for what it does and doesn’t do; and encourage them to disipline themselves.

  14. At the Troop, we have just started allowing the scouts to use their phones for picture taking only during scouting events. Scouts who make Calls, Text, email, facebook, web browse will have their phone picked up and returned at the end of camp. We collected two at Summer Camp this past week.

    At the Pack, no electronics period. Camera phones stay with the parent(s).

  15. I was dismayed years ago when GPSs were used for the Klondike map and compass (no old compasses). Don’t GPSs require batteries? But then again, isn’t that knowledge helpful?

    No I didn’t have cell phones / tablets when I was a Scout, but we played a ton of cards and read. Those were as interactive as my Scouts who play games and interact with Scouts who couldn’t make it via their electronics. Our rule is that electronics stay in the tent and can only be used when the SPL says they can until ‘lights out’.

    Then was then and now is now. I most certainly make use of mine when I can’t identify a plant or animal. And being able to track the weather is priceless. And non-paper management of advancement for a 70 Scout Troop is essential ‘on the fly’.

    Ifif

  16. James Eager // April 1, 2014 at 10:57 am // Reply

    Ack, all the above rules fail the test. Our troop devides electronics into 6 catagories. Each catagory has a “rule”.
    Catagory 1: Medical devices – blood meter, etc. Absolutely allowed!
    Catagory 2: Adult Cell phones – You can’t rule against these. My JOB requries me to carry mine 24/7 – and they pay for it!
    Catagory 3: Youth Cell phones. This one varies and is hard to pin down. But some of today’s youth use their cell phone as their watch!
    Catagory 4: Game and music devices – Not while in camp
    Catagory 5: Tools – GPS, etc. With some new merit badges, this one is now a no brainer. Allowed.
    Catagory 6: Radios – I prefer the “1 wind up device per camping unit” rule. (I have a small wind up radio and this is needed to get weather reports. We had a hurricane hit a scout camp locally with less then 24 hours notice. Wind up will keep the usage down to neccsity).

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