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MySpace Worries Summer Camp Directors

WWW- Summer camp directors have a new scourge, and it is not mosquitoes or impetigo. It is the Internet, specifically sites like MySpace, Facebook and Friendster, where young people often post personal or revealing information.

Camps say they are increasingly concerned about being identified in photographs or comments on these sites, even innocuously. They worry about online predators tracking children to camp and about their image being tarnished by inappropriate Internet juxtapositions – a mention, say, of the camp on a site that also has crude language or sexually suggestive pictures.

“This is probably the No. 1 issue facing all camp programs,” said Norman E. Friedman, a partner at AMSkier Insurance, a major camp insurer.

Some camps are banning or limiting digital cameras, fearful that images could wind up in undesirable places online. Some are telling counselors, parents and campers to remove camp references from personal Web pages, blogs or social networking sites like MySpace or Xanga.

“The biggest concern is the safety of the campers,” said Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association, which is urging camps to monitor Web sites, contact parents, and set rules about what counselors and campers can post. “The information that kids share today often is personal and private information that allows predators to track them down. We’re also concerned about cyber-bullying.”

Some camps, like Camp Fernwood, a girls camp in Poland, Me., are trademarking their names, logos or slogans so they can legally order others not to use them online.

In addition, “We are asking local police enforcement for more of a presence and are beefing up internal security, all of that directly because of MySpace,” said Fritz Seving, Fernwood’s director. “We’re bringing in a child psychologist to spend two days with campers talking about good decision-making.”

Some camps are banning or limiting more electronics. Camp Runoia in Belgrade Lakes, Me., is suggesting campers bring disposable cameras, not digital ones. Camp Nashoba North in Raymond, Me., allows digital cameras, but is banning iPods that play movies because “a child or anyone could put something inappropriate on it,” Sarah Seaward, the director, said.

AMSkier became aware of the Internet issue several months ago when a camp director searching MySpace found his camp’s name over a photograph of a naked woman, Mr. Friedman said. The insurer recently wrote hundreds of camps urging them to ask parents to have children remove “confidential information” from Web pages and tell counselors not to post pictures of campers or communicate with campers through personal Web pages.

Directors of many camps, like Riverview in Mentone, Ala., and Gesher Summer Program in Livingston, N.J., are also searching counselors’ Web sites for content they consider inappropriate.

Island Lake camp in Starrucca, Pa., recently asked campers to take its name off Web sites, concerned about cyber-bullying, safety and image.

“There were some things that we found that some of the kids posted that were really kind of nasty, saying bad things about counselors,” said Mark Stoltz, an Island Lake director. “Most of the sites were not negative,” Mr. Stoltz said, and “most of the kids who had stuff up there were nice kids,” but all references had to go.

One innocuous site belonged to Xander Green, 15, of Manhattan, a longtime Island Lake camper who formed a MySpace group for about 30 campers active in Island Lake theater. When a camp newsletter said campers should delete Island Lake references and use its official message board for all camp chatter, Xander called the camp and was told to remove his group.

“Everyone was kind of really mad about it and some people didn’t understand,” Xander said. “It was a drag because the group was a way for everybody to communicate in our own way without being on their monitored message board.”

At Camp Runoia, Pam Cobb, the director, said she looked up new counselors on MySpace and Facebook and found “people who we had hired who had things on their Web site that were inappropriate.”

She told counselors “they need to clean up their sites or make them private, or they can choose not to work with us.”

One counselor, she said, chose the last option, apparently reluctant to remove a “beer-drinking party scene.”

Another counselor, Jessica Scott, 22, made her Web presence camp-appropriate, removing a blog and making her Facebook entry available only to close friends. She said her Facebook page “was just pictures of being at parties with friends, not that crazy, but at camp they don’t even want us to have pictures with a cup in your hand.”

Ms. Scott said her blog discussed “regular college 22-year-old life – things that were frustrating me, who’s getting along with who, where am I going, and how’s school and relationships.” Because it did not mention her surname, “I didn’t think anybody could connect it to me.” Still, she took it down.

Mr. Seving, the director of Camp Fernwood, said he found campers’ Web pages with “our ZIP code in their name or ‘Fernwood forever’ or ‘Fernwood girl.’ ”

He added: “The good side of that is that they identify with our community. The bad side is it’s also a direct road map, and we don’t want to have to deal with that kind of exposure. This takes camp, a place that kids feel really safe about, and it adds this element of danger to it.”

Many directors are less concerned about Internet activity at camp itself, since many already ban gadgets like cellphones and laptops to create an “unplugged” experience. A bigger concern is off-season as campers or counselors discuss camp with each other online.

“One camp director called me in a panic,” said Christopher Thurber, a psychologist who advises camps. “She had Googled her camp’s name and linked to a soft-core porn site where she found pictures of her campers in their bathing suits. And what’s in the background? The camp banner.”

Scott Lantzman, director of Gesher Summer Program, a day camp, created his own MySpace account and invites every counselor to be on his friends list, so he can more easily gain access to their sites.

“You really get a lot of information that you can’t ask for in a job interview, but you go on the Web and it’s all there,” said Mr. Lantzman, who asked one counselor to remove a photograph of herself in a bikini holding a beer.

Aaron Marcus, 17, another counselor, said a few counselors objected to such scrutiny, but “I kind of think it’s a good idea.”

Parents of campers contacted by camp directors seem to generally share that impression.

“I think it’s important that they really want kids and parents to be aware, to go and check the sites,” said Karen Segal, Xander Green’s mother.

Ms. Seaward said that when she contacted one mother about her daughter’s site, which had photographs of the girl and friends with champagne glasses, “the mother’s first reaction was she doesn’t have a site. Then she said, ‘Well maybe she does, but I think I’ve looked at it and it’s fine.’ ”

But, Ms. Seaward said, “she called me back the next day and said, ‘Upon further review, we have had her shut her site to make it private.’ “


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