Rest easy, overprotective parents. Kids at sleepaway camp no longer have to suffer Twitter withdrawal. In June, Bunk1, the company that helped make online photo galleries as common a camp feature as canoeing and capture the flag, rolled out new ways for hovering moms and dads to bond with their children. For a fee, Bunk1 will deliver to otherwise social-media-deprived campers the three most recent tweets from their favorite Twitter personality. (More often than not, it's Justin Bieber.) Trios of tweets cost about $1 to send, in part because they have to be printed out at participating camps and distributed as though they were old-fashioned snail mail. Bunk1 has started delivering sports statistics this way too. So far this summer, parents have used the company to send thousands of tweets and more than 10,000 box scores to the 50 or so camps where the services are being beta tested.
As camps, like colleges, keep adding bells and whistles to stay competitive, attendance has been holding steady through the recession, according to the American Camp Association. In a survey of its members last year, three-quarters of responding camps said they allow parents to send their kids e-mails and look at photos that the staff posts online. The galleries started as a way to balance the parents' need for constant updates with the camps' goal of fostering independence. (That's why most camps still don't let campers send e-mails--and why some camps upload children's handwritten letters and zap them over to Mom and Dad.) Many camps have gone from posting a handful of photos a day to hundreds or even thousands a day. At Camp Greystone, near Asheville, N.C., the director and staff--and a professional photographer hired for special events--have posted more than 60,000 photos, and they're on track to reach 80,000 over the 11-week session.
"I 100% love it," Atlanta mom Elizabeth Ausband says of squinting at all the Greystone photos in hopes of seeing a few pics of her kids. But to many parents, that endless stream has become a slog, which is why Bunk1 will add facial-recognition software next summer. The Manhattan-based company, which launched in 1999 and now provides e-mail and photo-gallery services to more than 1,000 camps, plans to send Mom and Dad e-mail alerts every time the software identifies their child in a picture. "It alleviates some of the pressure" on parents, says CEO Ari Ackerman, a former camp color-war captain who wrote the business plan for Bunk1 in graduate school.
Although Bunk1 is eager to help camps post a gazillion photos, it draws the line at live video feeds. So does its competitor CampMinder. "The next step," jokes Frank Fagan, CampMinder's director of client development, "is building cabins for parents to watch out the windows." Camp Durant comes pretty close to doing that: the Boy Scout camp in Carthage, N.C., has webcams in the dining hall and near the flagpole that refresh photos online every 10 seconds. Cathy Kaplan, a mother of two in Raleigh, N.C., found herself glued to the video feeds in July, particularly at mealtimes, when she had a great view of her 11-year-old lifting fork to mouth. "You look for things like, Is he sitting with the group, or is he the kid at the end of the table?" she says.