A study in 2008 suggested that per capita participation in nature recreation is declining at a rate of approximately -1.0% to -1.3% per year (Pergams & Zaradic, 2008). It does not seem like much, but what if the trend continues for a century? The rise of technology and shift in popular culture may be behind this shift. The effects of spending less time in nature could affect our personal and environmental health (Mark & Janssen, 2008; Matthews & Riley, 1995).
A recent study that examined popular culture suggested it is evident in our American cultural products that we are growing more disconnected from nature (Kesebir & Kesebir, 2017). Cultural products, as Kesebir and Kesebir (2017) argued, are agents of socialization; footprints of the social context in which they were created. Studying cultural products may reveal trends in our society. Therefore, the steady decrease of references to nature in fiction books, song lyrics, and film storylines – versus references to the human-made environment which have not decreased – may point to a growing disconnection from nature (Kesebir & Kesebir, 2017).
Perhaps another explanation for the increasing disconnection with nature could be the rise in electronic entertainment media (Pergams & Zaradic, 2006). Pergams and Zaradic (2006) concluded that the decline in per capita visits to U.S. National Parks since 1988 was significantly correlated with hours of television, video games, home movies, theatre attendance, and internet use. More recently, average daily screen time usage for 13- to 18-year-olds was up to 9 hours (Rideout, 2015). Screen time may be a key factor linked to declines in time spent outdoors and connecting with nature (Larson et al., 2018). Excessive media consumption, combined with the decrease of references to nature in the cultural products that we are consuming, could be creating a negative feedback loop that is contributing to the decline in nature recreation.
According to Pergams and Zardic (2006), videophilia is “the new tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media” (p. 393). A large body of evidence suggests that connecting with nature contributes to our physical and psychological health and wellbeing (Pergams & Zaradic, 2008). Not only may videophilia be contributing to a decreased connection with nature, but it may be associated with a higher likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors that together increase the risk of numerous diseases and premature death. Twelve- to 19-year-olds reporting screen time of more than three hours per day are approximately two- to threefold more likely to have metabolic syndrome than 12- to 19-year-olds with daily screen time levels of one hour or less (Mark & Janssen, 2008).
It’s not only our personal health that may be affected as a result of spending less time in nature. As Pergams and Zaradic (2008) suggested that connectedness with nature may be associated with environmentally protective behaviors. The more people are exposed to natural areas as children, the higher likelihood they will care about natural areas as adults (Duda, 1998). Matthews and Riley (1995) suggested that extended periods of time spent in natural areas plus a role model, may create the most environmentally responsible behavior. Furthermore, this trend may seem invisible to people due to a shifting baseline – each generation accepts the time they spent outdoors as baseline and use this to evaluate changes in other generations (Pauly, 1995). This can result in a gradual creep of the baseline and skewed perceptions. A parent, for example, when comparing the time they spent outdoors as a child to the time their children are spending outdoors, may see a small difference. But the children’s grandparents may see a large difference. Yet when compared to a child living 1000 or even 100 years ago, a huge difference would likely be apparent. Therefore, the consequences of humans spending less time in nature may be more dramatic than current research tells us, because we are only comparing data from a few generations away and minimal relevant data is available from previous centuries.
The results of these studies highlight how important spending time in nature is to our environmental and personal health. With major issues like global warming, habitat destruction, and cardiovascular diseases threatening our planet and its inhabitants, perhaps we all need to spend more time outdoors beginning as children and in the presence of a role model. This way, we may exhibit more environmentally responsible behavior to protect our planet and decrease our screen time which may reduce our chances of developing metabolic syndrome (Mark & Janssen, 2008; Matthews & Riley, 1995). With these thoughts, electronic-free summer camps come to mind. Camp Voyageur sits on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and is primarily an adventure camp for boys, with participants spending over half their time on canoeing and hiking trips in the wilderness. The trips are 4-10 days long, facilitated by adult role models, and inherently in close contact with nature. A no-electronics policy, mixed with close contact to nature and in the presence of role models, seems to be a prescription for the prevention and treatment of videophilia. There are many summer camps throughout the country who share the same culture. Yet ironically, the BWCAW – the very playground for many anti-videophilia summer camps throughout the country – is being threatened today by proposed sulfide-ore mining in the public lands next to it. Perhaps we need to create a negative feedback loop of our own to conquer the videophilia-and-cultural-products loop by sending more people, especially our policy makers, into the wilderness to cultivate an appreciation for nature, which in turn could help combat videophilia and promote environmentally protective behaviors.
Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
Duda, M. D., Bissell, S. J., & Young, K. C. (1998). Wildlife and the American mind: Public opinion on and attitudes toward fish and wildlife management. Harrison, VA: Responsive Management.
Kesebir, S., & Kesebir, P. (2017). A growing disconnection from nature is evident in cultural products. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(2), 258-269.
Larson, L. R., Szczytko, R., Bowers, E. P., Stephens, L. E., Stevenson, K. T., & Floyd, M. F. (2018). Outdoor Time, Screen Time, and Connection to Nature: Troubling Trends Among Rural Youth? Environment and Behavior, 0013916518806686.
Mark, A. E., & Janssen, I. (2008). Relationship between screen time and metabolic syndrome in adolescents. Journal of Public Health, 30(2), 153-160.
Matthews, B. E., & Riley, C. K. (1995). Teaching and Evaluating Outdoor Ethics Education Programs. Vienna, VA: National Wildlife Federation.
Pauly, D. (1995) Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. TREE, 10(10), 430.
Pergams, O. R., & Zaradic, P. A. (2006). Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media? 16-year downtrend in national park visits explained by watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices. Journal of Environmental Management, 80(4), 387-393.
Pergams, O. R., & Zaradic, P. A. (2008). Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(7), 2295-2300.
Rideout, V. J. (2015). The common sense census: Media use by tweens and teens. Common Sense Media Incorporated.