Obsessed parents overanalyze photos of their kids at camp

August 18, 2023

Summer sleepaway camps regularly post photos of boys and girls during games, meals, and assemblies—reassuring parents their children are alive and having fun.

But many moms and dads aren’t convinced, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Indeed, parents scrutinize every pixel of their child’s expression and body language for clues about his or her emotional state. These parents may want their children to gain independence at camp, but they can’t help poring over photos to see if the kids are smiling, engaged in activities, or circled by friends. Anything less—a child walking alone or caught in a neutral expression—triggers questions and deep analysis.

“It’s an addiction,” said Stacy Johnson, of Manalapan, New Jersey. Every morning, she scrolls through hundreds of photos looking for her 11-year-old daughter Liv; and her son Jace, 8. They go for seven weeks to Camp Chen-A-Wanda in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.

Johnson is more concerned about Jace, a first-time camper. In a video from a dance party at Camp Chen-A-Wanda, she saw he wasn’t joining the fun. She guessed he was sad because parent-visiting day had ended only a few hours earlier.
Obsessed parents gather evidence from photos to tell their campers via letters and calls to change their shirts or slather on more sunscreen. Others, desperate for information, offer children cash rewards if they try to appear in more camp photos.

Dayna Solomon, of Brooklyn, was disturbed by a photo of her 13-year-old-son Jake, a camper at Susquehannock in Pennsylvania. The boy was shown walking under a bridge made by the outstretched arms of campers. She immediately texted her husband, Seth.

“Hm. He doesn’t look thrilled,” she wrote.

“You’re nuts,” her husband replied. “He looks focused.”

Photo-copter parents hover a far distance from their own parents, who generally dropped them at summer camp with the expectation of maybe a letter or two. Some camps now livestream sports tournaments and other special events on Instagram. 

Heidi Green, a professional photographer in Manhattan who has two campers, created the Instagram account Spot My Kid, which has 1,177 followers. She described her audience as “crazy camp parents who stalk, overanalyze, and treasure every single sighting. (No matter how ridiculous.)” Parents share photos marked with circles and arrows that flag their child in a crowd.

“We’re so desperate for a sign of life that we hold on to any little sign we can find, whether it’s the back of our child’s shoe, the top of their hat, their ear or them all the way in the back of a photo where we have to zoom in 100 times to see them,” Green said.

Tracy Seiler’s son Brody, 10, has been attending Camp Westmont in Pennsylvania since age 9, and he was joined this summer by his 7-year-old twin siblings Ryder and Emmy. As an experienced camp parent Seiler knew not to freak out when she saw a photo of Ryder standing alone at the camp carnival. A couple of summers ago, Seiler, of Marlboro, New Jersey, saw a similar photo of Brody and recalled obsessing that he had no friends.

“Those thoughts build anxiety, and they run away with you,” said Stacy Fleischman, director of business development at Camp Specialists, a service that matches children with camps. She fields calls from clients who sometimes panic about what they infer from photos of their children. “They can make a parent who isn’t anxious become anxious.”

Tyler Hill Camp in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, employs photographers and videographers to document the daily lives of campers. Every age group has its own Instagram account. One videographer posts on TikTok, a new feature this year. The camp’s opening day got around half a million views.

“We live in a different world. Kids coming to camp today are connected to their parents 24/7. All of a sudden that stops and they have an insatiable appetite for knowing what’s going on,” said Wendy Siegel, the camp’s co-owner and director with her husband, Andy. To keep pace with demand, the camp tries to capture at least two photos of each camper every day.

Six years ago, the clamor from parents about what they saw in camp photos prompted an email from Siegel that revealed some of the questions from moms and dads.

 My son isn’t smiling. Please go back and take another of him smiling.

Can you please make sure she knows that the blue tank top with the stripes is to wear at night—not during the day?

Why is my son standing on the outskirts of the group? Do those boys not like him?

 Siegel and her staff now remind parents that if there is a serious concern they will be in touch. Otherwise, she said, she advises them to embrace the philosophy that no news is good news. 

Parents may cherish that their children forgo technology while at camp, but many feel no qualms about using apps like Campanion and its competitors, which use facial recognition to alert moms and dads when a photo of their child surfaces.

Paul Berliner, president of Campanion, said the app was created to help camps manage hiring, payment, medical forms, and profiles. The photo tagging feature was a natural evolution, he said, giving parents a way to more closely share the camp experience.

Johnson, the mother of Liv and Jace, goes through all of the daily camp photos even though she has the app.

“I still want to be a part of camp,” said Johnson, who worked at her own childhood camp into her early 20s. “A Campanion notification goes off and my heart flutters.”

Research contact: @WSJ