Two conservation ecologists are doing research that indicates that the decreasing amounts of time youth spend playing outdoors is causing them to have more interest in video games and television than in nature.
Conservation ecologist Patricia Zaradic of Bryn Mawr College and Oliver Pergams of the University of Illinois at Chicago say a shift is occurring from biophilia, the human orientation towards humans and other animals, to videophilia. They define videophilia as “the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.”
Although biophilia, as described by Edward O. Wilson of Harvard in a 1984 book of that name, took millions of years to develop, Zaradic and Pergams claim that videophilia is taking hold in only a generation or two. Today’s parents spent large portions of their childhood free time outdoors and may have lived on or near farms. But only about 2 percent of the US population lives on farms today. Today’s children spend hours per day on sedentary indoor media activity at the expanse of time spent in more active outdoor play. Since today’s children are tomorrow’s parents, Pergams and Zaradic hypothesize that this generation of youth will not pass on a love and understanding of nature to their own children because they will not have it.
Zaradic and Pergams set about studying the incidence of direct exposure to nature, and also support for the US National Parks System, by studying visitor statistics at national parks. Attendance at US national parks increased steadily since records began in 1939, peaked in 1987, and has dropped steadily since then. The researchers investigated possible reasons for this decline and ruled out overcrowding, entrance fees, and other factors. They discovered a strong correlation between attendance and two factors. The first factor is media use: TV watching, video games, and starting in the early 1990s, Internet use; the second was the price of auto fuel. A rise in electronic media use and gasoline prices correlated very closely with the dropoff in national park attendance. They reported these findings in an article in the Journal of Developmental Processes in 2007, “Videophilia: Implications for Childhood Development and Conservation.”
Citing previous research, Zaradic and Pergams distinguish direct experience with nature from indirect, the kind experienced in zoos and science museums, and virtual experience, non-physical contact such as watching nature on television shows or via Web cams.
Direct experience with nature offers a multi-sensory experience that is constantly changing and requires alertness and attention in order to solve problems and react. Indirect experience keeps nature at arm’s length, involves no interaction, and requires no spontaneous response.
Virtual experience of nature offers some benefit, they say, giving children the opportunity to see Old Faithful go off or gaze at parts of the Amazon rainforest. This offers some educational benefit and lessens the burden on the parks and intrusion on protected areas. But it is a poor substitute for the real thing, the authors write. Virtual experiences tend to sensationalize natural dangers and exaggerate dramatic vistas. Local parks can seem drab in comparison. Even worse, virtual access is strongly associated with loss of direct contact. Rather than encouraging visits to the real thing, the authors cite studies that say the more time that youth spend on the Internet, the less time they spend outdoors.
Implications for Child Development and Conservation
The authors say the lack of direct interaction with nature is robbing children of complex sensory stimuli that help humans develop problem-solving skills. Virtual experiences do not contain smells, textures to touch, hills, weather, or three-dimensional spaces to be understood and dealt with. The connection between sedentary activities, such as computer use, and childhood obesity is well documented. There is increasing evidence that prolonged screen time early in life contributes to attention deficit disorder (ADD) and that, conversely, outdoor play, or even just a green window view, can calm ADHD behaviors.
A 2008 article by Pergams and Zaradic published by the US National Academy of Sciences strengthens the evidence that direct exposure to nature is decreasing by exploring data beyond the US and national parks attendance. Surveying US fishing and hunting licenses, visitor numbers from American state parks systems, and Spanish and Japanese national parks, they found a decline in nature-based recreation that began in the decade 1981-1991. Visitor numbers in Japan are much higher and therefore express the trend more accurately. They have not yet established a connection between this international trend and videophilia but are emphatic in their opinion of its effect on nature conservation.
“We think it probable that any major decline in the value placed on natural areas and experiences will greatly reduce the value people place on biodiversity conservation. Accordingly, it becomes less likely that attempts to raise public awareness of the current biodiversity crisis will succeed,” the 2008 article says.
The Videophilia series adds to the growing body of knowledge surrounding the benefits of green space to child development. A 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, introduced the term “nature-deficit disorder.” Louv says that frequent, active contact with nature is so important to human development that nature-deficit disorder is similar to separation anxiety and should be listed among recognized mental disorders.
Other researchers in this field include Marti Erickson of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development, one of the founders of the Children & Nature Network, which connects organizations with the common goal of connecting children to nature on a regular basis. Andrea Faber Taylor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studies the benefits of green spaces on child development. At the CYFAR 2008 conference, Karen DeBord of the University of North Carolina Extension gave a workshop on improving outdoor space around child care centers and incorporating outdoor activities into preschool programs. DeBord calls outdoor space “an extension of the classroom and should be considered another space for learning.”
Videophilia, the website
Zaradic, P.A., & Pergams, O.R.W., (2008). Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation, PNAS Early Edition, the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, accessed 2 June 2008 from http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0709893105.
Zaradic, P.A., & Pergams, O.R.W., (2007). Videophilia: Implications for childhood development and conservation, Journal of Developmental Processes 2:1, Spring 2007, 130-144, accessed 2 June, 2008 from http://www.redrockinstitute.org/uploads/videophilia2.pdf.
DeBord, K. (2008). “Play outside: Teaching parents and teachers what to do with children outside,” a CYFAR 2008 presentation.
DeBord, K., et. al, (2003). “Making the most of outdoor time with preschool children,” a fact sheet, North Carolina State University.
DeBord, K., et. al, Preschool outdoor environment measurement scale: Quality in outdoor environments for child care, a website.
Faber-Taylor, A. & Kuo, F.E. “Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings,” Environment and Behavior 33:1, January 2001, 54-77.
Louv, Richard (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.