Byline: DAVID HICKS
A campfire crackles, the night sky is dotted with twinkling stars and crickets sing their song late into the evening. Campers gather around the fire, marshmallows speared on hastily gathered sticks.
And then a monster arrives and the campers draw sheathed weapons and charge the fiend. This is "Free Realms," a free-to-play online game that allows users of all ages to meet and play together. But is this cyber-camp better than the real deal?
According to Pamela Bell, no.
Bell is the director of the University of North Florida's Child Development Research Center, and she said she thinks that face-to-face socialization, such as at a summer camp, is extremely important for the development of social skills.
Children who engage in online socialization are missing many forms of communication, such as body language, facial expressions and tone, said Bell.
"Online you can never be sure of what the other person is saying," Bell said. "There are too many assumptions being made during the conversation."
Bell also said she thinks a camp is a safe environment that allows children to engage in healthy risk-taking in controlled challenges.
Taking risks helps build character and resiliency when the campers participate in the activities, said Bell.
"They learn how to support, work with and encourage the other campers," Bell said.
While online socialization won't be replacing meeting a person face-to-face any time soon, it still has some uses, Bell said. She said she thinks one of the best uses would be allowing people to meet online before meeting in person. "It's like a gated community. People feel more secure behind a computer."
Nikos Westmoreland, vice president of marketing and communications for the YMCA of Florida's First Coast, also said he thinks camp plays an important role in social and character development.
"Going to camp allows kids to meet each other face-to-face in an increasingly online world," Westmoreland said. "It teaches healthy living and lets them experience a lot of different things and people."
He said he thinks that camp helps by getting kids out of the house and off the computer. The resident camps offered by the YMCA try to minimize the amount of time campers spend online while at camp, said Westmoreland.
Daniel and Maarshae Rossman also said they believe in the importance of camp and children meeting each other in person. Their daughters, Kaila and Danielle, have been going to camp since they were old enough to attend school. …