Connected or disconnected? The price of spending time indoors

Flikr Creative Commons: iJammin

More than ever before, technology has enabled us to be more connected to each other. But is there a cost?

This is also a time in which we are experiencing a decrease in connection to our natural heritage -- a loss of grand proportions.

In his recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof spins a tale of journeying along the Pacific Crest Trail with his daughter, in pursuit of nothing short of sanity. His story draws attention to how rare such adventures have become. In particular, he notes these troubling statistics:

  • The number of backcountry campers in our national parks has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1979.
  • The number of Americans who fish dropped by 15 percent between 1996 and 2006, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • In that same period, the number of hunters dropped by just over 10 percent.

Youth at risk

These statistics agree with many studies conducted in the past decade that look at our dwindling connection with nature. In 2007, The National Academy of Sciences published research which verified that declines in nature recreation began between 1981 and 1991, and have since decreased 18% to 25%. 

The facts keep pouring in:

  • 63 percent of youth ages 6 to 12 participated in outdoor recreation in 2011, compared to 78 percent in 2006, according to the Outdoor Foundation.
  • In these past five years, youth that participated in fishing declined from 18% to 16%.
  • The percentage of Americans 34 and under who participate in wildlife watching is about half of the percentage of those over 35 who do, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

See also: Infographic: Why Wilderness matters 

The apple doesn't fall far

Surprisingly, these children are being raised by a generation that took outside time for granted. While 71 percent of adults report that they walked or rode a bike to school when they were young, only 22 percent of children do so today, according to the Children & Nature Network.

Also, children are more likely to play at home now where they are more closely supervised. Only 3 percent of today's children have a high degree of mobility and freedom in how and where they play.

Trading greens for screens

Why has a generation raised in the outdoors not passed on this legacy? Some say safety concerns are the culprit. But it also seems that these trends may be in correlation with another. As technology increasingly demands our attention, the birds and bees seem to be fading into the background.

Accoring to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of an average of five hours a day of leisure time, American adults watch TV for 2.7 hours, play on their computer for 25 minutes and exercise or recreate for a mere 19 minutes.

Many reports are more gloomy for kids, with estimates of time with media ranging from 30 hours a week to 53 hours a week. This may be why children can identify 25 percent more Pokemon characters than wildlife species at eight years old, according to the Children & Nature Network.

Wide-open future

Professionals are concerned about the future, especially for our children. Medical providers are concerned about obesity and related diseases, and psychologists recognize correlated increases in anxiety, depression and ADHD. Recreational businesses are suffering economically and environmentalists fear a generation that doesn't value nature. Statistics are especially disheartening for low-income and minority populations, prompting the attention of sociologists and politicians.

Still, despite these grim forecasts, there does seem to be a silver lining. Continued research reveals disappointments, but also bright spots:

  • Wildlife watching has increased over the last ten years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Participation in snowsports, triathlons and kayaking in particular have increased significantly in the past several years, according to the Outdoor Foundation.
  • In 2011, outdoor recreation among Americans reached the highest participation level in the last five years.
  • Nearly 50 percent of all Americans ages six and older participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2011, enjoying 1.4 billion more outings than the previous year.
  • Eighty-one percent of voters report having visited a National Parks at some point in their lives, and nearly nine in 10 say they are interested in visiting in the future.
  • Appreciation for such parks is evident in an unprecedented 95% approval of continued government support of these places, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

You can help turn the tide by turning off your technology and taking the time for outdoor adventures. After all, as Kristof describes in his article, the best opportunities to connect to each other can often come from such experiences.

See also

Infographic: Why wilderness matters

Blog by Lydia Hooper. Hooper is a freelance writer with an interest in science and environment. She holds a B.A. in environmental media and lives in Denver, Colorado.