The danger of too much screentime, in and out of the woods


In an Earth Day podcast, new Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell expressed her concern over the growing divide between people and nature. She pointed to “screen time,” and to other distractions that keep kids, in particular, from exploring their outdoor environments and from developing a general curiosity about the natural world.

Children and adolescents now spend half the time outdoors that they spent 20 years ago. Instead they are in front of screen media for an average of 53 hours each week, or roughly 7.5 hours per day. It’s no wonder then that 83 percent of citizens polled earlier this year in six Western states expressed concern that their children are not spending enough time outdoors.

What does our current preference for a Wii tethered to a flat screen over the “Whee!” squealed while swinging from a tree branch mean for our environment? Researchers have concluded there’s a powerful connection between spending time in wild natural spaces before age 11 and thoughts and actions toward the environment in adulthood. That doesn’t mean every child digging in the dirt is a budding John Muir, but that time spent hunting frogs and splashing in streams activates an awareness that makes them more likely to give a scat what happens to the natural world later on.

Elk with GPS collar. Courtesy of Lori Iverson, USFWS.

Even when do we retreat to wild environs, technology is changing the quality of those experiences. Most times I’m fortunate enough to get to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) I lay eyes upon an elk with a clunky GPS radio necklace.

Often I see visitors hunched over smart phones studying routes while the landscape begs to be read.  Just west of RMNP a drone airplane, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, recently buzzed above several greater sage grouse breeding grounds. And in south-central Colorado that same unmanned Raven whirred over Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge photographing birds. Such flyovers have become highly sought-after research tools.

It’s far from certain that observing wildlife and habitat in these remote ways achieves the goal of improving scientists’ ability to understand animal ecology and conservation. To the contrary, in a “Critical review of the use of GPS telemetry data in ecology,” researchers found that while GPS devices have benefits they also have major drawbacks. “…We see the divorcing of biologists from a field-based understanding of animal ecology to be a growing problem,” the report says. Take the case of Texas researchers surveying river otters. When they tried to track them in person, relying on their observations, “…On average, experienced observers misidentified 44 percent of otter tracks.” Overall, participants attributed the tracks of 12 other species to otter.

Mark Bauer of the USGS with an unmanned RQ–11A Raven aircraft at Monte Vista NWR. Credit: Floyd Truetken, USFWS.

Gadgetry has made some extracurricular outings and “field work” safer and more productive, no doubt, but the jury is still out on whether it is complementing, dominating or just plain interfering with those experiences. There’s something to be said for the ability of GPS to get you out of a jam in the backcountry, but it’s important to get lost once in a while, to rely on observations and a singular focus on your surroundings. “Didn’t I pass that blooming columbine earlier? Can I hear the rush of the stream I’m supposed to cross? Does that rustling in the trees sounds like something bigger than me? That smells like rain approaching…”

Technology is often a crutch which feeds the human quest for certainty. But doubt is ever-present and instead of making us more autonomous, personal freedom is lost when we’re beholden to the insistent bleeps and pings and the enticing glow of our devices. The pure joy of discovery is short-circuited.

Because they know that kids who engage with the outdoors are more likely to become responsible stewards of those resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says on its website, “The natural world is part of our heritage and if our children grow up without the chance to develop a relationship with the land that they live on, who will be there to preserve and protect this resource for future generations?”

Grizzly bear tracks. Courtesy of NPS.

This is a particularly salient question for these times. Sequestration cuts are making it even easier to commit crimes against nature. The Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement efforts are suffering and the work of the Department of Justice’s environmental division is being hindered. It’s more important than ever to get an “indoorsy” generation outside; to have them learning, watching and caring.

“What birds are calling? Who built that nest? Can you feel the fleeting presence of the critters that left behind those scats, tracks, scratch marks, diggings and chews?” Whether in urban, suburban or wilderness areas, unplugging long enough to answer these questions could ensure habitable environs for us all, and may restore some our humanity in the process.

Heather Hansen is a journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
May 14, 2013 03:42 PM
Totally disagree on the second part. Bringing a smartphone into the woods is not inherently harmful or distracting. Its just like any other tool. Is it bad to bring a field guide into the woods, or a notebook for biological monitoring? What about citizen science? I use in the woods all the time and I find I am way more 'in touch with nature' than the people blowing past me to climb whatever peak and go home. Besides, isn't someone 'texting' outside better than someone staying indoors? Come on HCN. This is silly.
Smartphones are a tool that change how you interact with the world, and can distract or blind you to what is around you. The same is true for fire. It mesmerizes people so they aren't looking around, it warms them so they lose ability to survive the cold, it totally changes their relationship with nature. We are the masters of our tools, not the other way around. Rather than decrying the tool why not talk more about how we can use it for the greater good?
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
May 14, 2013 03:45 PM
Also, there is a profound disrespect and misunderstanding of science here. Using a tool like GPS does not remove our understanding of the world, it enhances it. We can't map and track changes to our world as effectively without these tools. Do you think Darwin would have turned them down? There never has been and never will be a substitute for good 'field time' but paper pushers and funding administrators have been denying us field biologists the resources and time to do the proper field work since ecology first started. Skip the luddite silliness and stop villainizing the tools that make an already thankless job a bit easier.
Red Lodge
Red Lodge Subscriber
May 14, 2013 04:54 PM
Charlie- I appreciate your comments but you're (mostly) missing the point. Texting outside or inside is the same thing; it's a distraction from the activities researchers tell us breed good stewardship. It would be great, as you say, if we were the masters of these tools but we are not, that is, without vigilance. Why else would you reject a scenario which suggests demoting our devices while in the wild? To use your analogy, have we been able to control every fire we've started?

As for Darwin, I doubt he would have been a brilliant naturalist if his iPhone had been diverting him toward his Facebook updates regularly, if he'd ventured outside at all. Quite to the contrary of "villainizing" these tools, I ask in this blog the same questions scientists are asking themselves (following links to studies for more info)- in order to maintain a high level of integrity - are these tools helping us get it right or wrong?
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Jun 11, 2013 04:22 PM
Yes!!! I completely agree. I've been slowly trying to rid myself (and to a lesser degree my wife) from all this unnecessary technology. Especially when we're outside. To texting allowed (only work related, I've quit carrying my gps and gone back to a compass and paper map, and I go out of my way to vacation in places my cell phone won't work. I really hope that our daughter is an exception to the rule when it comes to her appreciation for the outdoors and her reliance on technology for entertainment. Thanks for the article. I'm glad I'm not alone.