The Camp Director

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What Summer Camps Can Teach Startups About Supervising Interns and Young People: A Comment on Michael Arrington’s Tech Crunch Apology

February 5th, 2010 · 7 Comments · Human Resources, Risk Management, Technology, Teens

Michael Arrington, founder and co-editor of TechCrunch, is dealing with an issue today on his blog that highlighted how we rely on interns and young people, often forgetting they are still at an age where their reasoning is not firing with 100% accuracy. This is an area summer camp directors and recreation professionals hold special expertise. I am speaking at SXSW Interactive this year on the topic: Mobilizing the Power of Interns and Managing GenY and felt this kerfuffle deserved a post.
TechCrunch is a popular and widely read blog covering the technology field. With reportedly over 7.5 million unique visitors and 20 million page views per month, it is among the top blogs on the internet. Michael Arrington publicly apologized to his readers for an egregious act by a teenage intern, that he has had to terminate.  According to the post, An Apology To Our Readers, Feburary 4, 2010, this intern “had requested, and in one case taken, compensation for a post.”  Daniel Brusilovsky, the intern at Tech Crunch, was one of the blog’s writers. You may not think this is a big deal but when it comes to a blog, readers expect transparent coverage. In October 2009, the FTC released disclosure guidelines governing endorsements, testimonials for bloggers, and celebrity endorsements, etc. To find out someone has been paid or compensated to post without disclosing is a major incident.

The Teen Brain: a Maze of Incomplete Circuits

There is a lot of speculation as to the name of the intern. TechCrunch removed all the posts this intern had written. With google search it was not hard to figure out who it was. Daniel has come forward and ended the speculation by discussing the incident publicly on his blog. I had dinner with Danial and a group of people at WordCamp San Francisco earlier this year. I found him to be a fairly typical teenager who is smart and mature.   He is the sort of kid who will be wiser because of this – it’s all about the life skills.  These are the sort of kids I have working at camp all the time.  These sort of stars are able to cross over into the adult world so much so that we forget they were born in the 90’s.

As camp and youth recreation workers, we have all had this sort of teenager working for us in our programs. You know the one – everyone can’t believe he or she is only 16. They are usually in our training programs and everyone jokes how they seem more mature than some of our college staff.  As professionals who work with teens, we also know that sound judgment can be fleeting at this age. Recent research on brain development has taught us that the frontal lobe is still developing even past adolescence, teenagers and even young adults still need supervision. PBS ran an excellent series, Inside the Teen Brain, that you can watch online about these new findings. I have seen the most mature teen make very stupid decisions as their immature brain circuitry took over. When they are working with children, as they do at camp, this can have dangerous consequences.

When all is going well, teenagers reason quite well, often rivaling the most mature adult. Put temptation, risk, pressure, and stress in the mix and you have the recipe for inconsistency and poor decision making. Their frontal lobe is still developing causing teens not to reason well under all situations. The frontal lobes help halt the desire for thrills and taking risks — a building block of adolescence; but, new brain imaging research tells us the frontal lobe is also one of the last areas of the brain to fully develop. Again, a teenager is not “off the hook” for their own poor decisions. I just think adults need to be more involved in the supervision of teens they hire rather than assume they are fully capable to make responsible choices 100% of the time. I have no evidence that this intern was not supervised sufficiently, I am merely suggesting we give him a break and not pile on with such condemnation.

Blog Commenters Pile On

It is not a surprise at all that this young intern at TechCrunch made such a big mistake. What I am surprised by is how shocked the TechCrunch community is. The story is still fresh and has picked up over 100 comments since i started writing this post. I pulled a few that highlight my point. I strongly encourage you to head over to the TechCrunch comment section for this post and read for yourself.

“Shame that a 17 year old with much potential has already soiled his reputation in the tech community.” – Adam

“Come on it is obviously (name removed). All of his posts are mysteriously missing… I am really disappointed in him as, being his age, I really looked up to him. I also think it is unfair he is singlehandedly smearing the morality of teens.” – Cash R.

“What did you expect when you took on kids and gave them access to one of the most read blogs on the internets?” – Alex

“This makes a great case for never letting an intern get close to anything important.” – Johnny

“How can you just say don’t hire kids? The writers age has nothing to do with it, it’s purely the matter of the writer taking compensation to say good things. This has happened and will happen again.” – Nat

Of course there are a few sane voices in the crowd commenting on the mistakes teens make but that is not the norm. Granted, they don’t work with young people for a career. Do they recall their own lapses in judgment or stupid actions they took as a teenager? Fortunately I did not have to suffer mine on one of the most popular tech blogs. I am not absolving this intern from responsibility in any way, I am merely suggesting we stop expecting teenagers to have the judgment and reasoning skills of an adult 100% of the time. It is simply not biological for them to do so. We set them up to fail and then shame them for doing so.

Being Let Down by a Young Worker

Michael Arrington wrote:
“We are all shaken here at TechCrunch – this is someone who was our friend and who we trusted to be honest with our readers. Our hope is that the intern learns something from this experience and grows into the kind of person that will be more welcome in this community.”

How many of you have had experiences with your young staff where they have done something stupid that let you down? It happens all the time. As camp directors and youth program people, we minimize the risk by providing them with supervisor so when they make mistakes they are not a safety risk to the children in our program. We also screen those young staff to make sure this is the right opportunity for them at this time in their development. Not every 17 year old is ready to be in a leadership role around children nor are they ready to be talking with companies on behalf of one of the largest blogs on the internet.

Just as with camp, this incident was brought to attention by a trusted source. I have always been grateful for the many times a staff member has come to me to let me know a team member was behaving in a way that was not to our level of performance quality. We make it known that it is everyone’s responsibility to look out for the children and camp. If a staff member is putting kids or the camp’s reputation at risk, they are obligated to speak-up and they do. I empathize with Michael Arrington, because I know what it feels like to feel let down. Fortunately in my case the consequences were never a safety issue. What is hard for me is feeling like I put that young person in a role they weren’t ready for and now they made a mistake that cuts at their feelings of being competent and successful. It sometimes causes them to lose their job. When that happens I always wonder if it could have been prevented had I not promoted them so soon. They of course share some of the blame, but it is not theirs alone.

For those of you reading who are going to SXSWi, I look forward to continuing the conversation on this topic of interns. They can be a fantastic source of labor if you provide them with the necessary level of supervision and training.

Ryan (commenter said it best)
“I think its a real issue. While there are tremendously responsible “emerging adults” in the world, lets be honest, kids are kids, and they sometimes do really stupid things.

And before the clueless start lobbing excuses, humanity has long protected kids from their own actions, as society recognizes that emerging adults shouldn’t be buried for life by the stupid things they do as minors.”

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  • Great Post Jenn.
    @admbrown (a director who worked for me) used to lead a training session with his staff facetiously titled something like “Don't make your own decisions – your brain isn't fully formed”.

    A great advantage of the summer camp staff experience is that it provides a safe place – with plenty of back up – to make mistakes.

    One thing that we drilled in to our staff (it became our most important mission-tool) was the “4 S's”. The Four S's are a decision making instrument that all staff and campers must practise.

    In order to do anything at camp you must first answer Yes to ALL of the Four S Questions:

    – Is it Safe?
    – Does it Serve the others in the community?
    – Does it build Self-Esteem?
    – Is it good Stewardship of the environment?

    Only then can you proceed.

    That made a HUGE difference in our camp culture and made it easy to trust the decision making skills of our young adults.

  • Max Klapowski

    Thanks for the post :). I've really been enjoying your articles.

    Can I ask you what widget/plugin you are using to get users to “recieve posts via email”. I've been looking for something like this for my blog.


  • Max: I am using feedburner to deliver the posts via email: although I think feedblitz does the same thing

  • Thanks for the useful and practical tips! I love the quote by @admbrown “Don't make your own decisions – your brain isn't fully formed”. May need to use that.

    I run social skills groups for kids on the spectrum and find that many can tell you what a social rule or norm in when things are calm but have an execution problem. Teens can be the same way with inconsistent execution. Seems that is almost worse than my spectrum kids because I know not to let them go without proper supervision but I sometimes get lulled into a false sense of security with my high functioning teens, forgetting they will have lapses.

  • toddwagner

    Intriguing article Jennifer. It reminds me of how camp can play such a vital role in the social development of children, teenagers, and also adults. Camp counselors regularly teach life skills to their campers. After all, that's what makes camp special. It's a fun, safe place where kids can learn the value of respect and the benefits of teamwork, all while enjoying sports and the beauty of the outdoors with their peers.

    However, as a camp administrator I firmly believe that we must further this curriculum to include our camp staff as well. Camp is the perfect environment for teenagers/young adults to learn life skills. The very term counselor-in-training combines the acknowledgment of being a learner, with the responsibility of being a teacher. Like you said, some circumstances at camp involve matters of safety, so there are times everyone must be in top form. Yet, other times issues may be less intense – arriving on time, appropriate body language, or speaking to a parent. These are the instances where we as administrators can offer our young staff guidance that will allow them to become well-rounded adults in the future.

  • Max Klapowski

    Thank you!

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