As someone who used to work in outdoor sports before making a dramatic u-turn into the world of technology and kids, I find it viscerally disturbing to see young kids out in nature with their eyes glued to a screen. Invariably they are missing the wonders of a beautiful day, immune to the magic and fragility of our incredible planet.
So when my friend Michele Whiteaker, founder of FunOrangeCountyParks.com and co-founder of NaturePlayTrips.com built for easing families into the outdoors, asked me to collaborate with her on “How to Be a Good Digital Citizen Outdoors,” we decided to take a look at the issue from a perspective of family balance and respecting the rights of others to enjoy our natural resources.
We believe that finding a healthy balance between our online and offline lives, especially for our children, is one of the great challenges of our day. Not just in the U.S., but globally. Case in point: Taiwanese lawmakers just approved a law allowing the government to fine parents of children under the age of 18 who are using electronic devices for extended periods of times. This law follows similar measures in China and South Korea aimed at limiting screen time to healthy levels.
Citing health concerns, the Taiwanese government can fine parents up to $1595 ($50,000 Taiwanese Dollars) if their child’s use of electronic devices “exceeds a reasonable time” according to Taiwan’s ETTV (and Google Translate). Under the new law, excess screen time is now considered to be the equivalent of vices like smoking, drinking, using drugs, and chewing betel nuts.
In the U.S. studies indicate that 8 to 18 year olds are spending an average of 7.5 hours per day engaged with media (10-plus hours when accounting for multi-tasking). Yet as long-term studies of the short-term phenomenon of digital media are starting to trickle in, they are telling us that excessive screen time is not healthy for kids. In fact, excessive media use can lead to attention issues, behavioral problems, learning difficulties, sleep disorders, and obesity. Additionally, a new study by the University of California, Los Angeles finds too much time online may even inhibit a child’s ability to recognize emotions. Yet young people in the U.S. continue to spend more time with media than they do with their families or in school—or outdoors for that matter.
Inevitably, children are bringing their devices to public parks and nature spaces without knowing basic etiquette and what it means to be a “good digital citizen outdoors.” Unfortunately, even adults are not modeling the ways visits to nature can serve as a balance to increasing time in front of screens.
There should be boundaries. With this in mind, here are eight boundaries or guidelines to help young people (and their parents!) find that healthy balance between tech and nature:
Research before, share after. The time to use technology to enhance your nature experience is before you go and after you get back. Michele calls this strategy “bookending.” Of course it’s okay to make some time and space to snap a few photos while you’re out, but otherwise turn that selfie-stick into a walking stick, put your smartphone in your pocket and be present in your nature experience.
Turn off the sound and look around. Part of the nature experience is silence and wild sounds. No one wants to hear your click, click, click if you text or taking photos. Nature is a sacred place to those who are enjoying it and the wildlife that lives there. Do your best not to interrupt their experience.
Don't trample the woods to share your goods. Getting that one-of-a-kind shot to share with your “friends” doesn't mean you have permission to trample or de-face natural resources to get it. Recent events of graffiti at national parks shared on Instagram or Boy Scouts knocking over ancient rock formations to shoot a video show the extent people will go to “share” their experience with others.
Tech is not terrible; but how you use it may be. Technology is often vilified and placed into opposition with nature experiences, but it can be a handy tool. Use it for identification, research, or how you would use a book (remember those?) to enhance your outdoor experience. But remember, you don't have to know the name of something to enjoy it.
Don't be driven to distraction. Ask yourself: Is your tech helping you see things or is it making you miss the moment? If you’re goal is time in nature to balance your tech, give nature 100% of your attention. There are tales of a whole class missing the breaching of whales during a coastal hike or others who missed a deer smack in front of them because they were distracted by their devices. Don’t be those people.
Let “why” be your guide. Always ask yourself if what you are doing is worth the time or distraction. Do you NEED to do it? (Are you sharing with friends? Blogging to inspire others? Keeping a nature photo album? Telling a story? Looking up research? "Collecting" flora and fauna through photographs? Pursuing an art form with your photography? Do you need it for navigation?) If the answer is “no” – then put save your tech time for later and enjoy the moment.
Nature is it’s own best teacher. The real value of nature comes when we can experience it for what it is. When you see something occur in nature that you've never seen before and may never seen again, that’s the wonder that makes it so beneficial and educational. Just a small dose of what Richard Louv calls “Vitamin N” can help us navigate struggles and makes us healthier, smarter, and happier.
An hour away is more than okay. Always, always, always leave time for enjoyment and the purity of the moment. Don’t let the constant beeping of text messages, tweets, and waiting Snapchats get in the way. They will be there later. As you get out more, you'll get better at this. We promise.
Personally I’ve found a nice balance between technology and the outdoors in a handy little app called Strava. It records my outdoor pursuits on a bike or a hike without any action from me while I’m “out there” and let’s me share that experience with friends afterwards. So, in other words, being a fan of nature doesn’t mean one has to be an enemy of tech. If you’re getting 7.5 hours a day on a screens, one hour outdoors with your device in your backpack or back pocket seems reasonable. It’s all about balance.
Writing credit: Diana Graber is the co-founder of Cyberwise (aka, No Grownup Left Behind) and Cyber Civics (the middle school digital literacy program that teaches students how to become thoughtful, ethical, and smart digital citizens). She is also the author of the forthcoming book: Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology (HarperCollins Leadership/World Rights/2019)