For most Americans, rural, suburban, and urban alike, the virtual world is limitless, but their actual worlds have shrunk.
I’m only 32, but I feel much older when I start talking about how things were back when I was a kid. Nowadays, I get pictures from the space station sent to my twitter feed and my car can communicate with satellites to tell me how to get to the nearest coffee shop. When I was a kid, all knowledge came from books and other people; there was no such thing as immediately finding out the answer to anything. When I think back to my childhood, I mainly remember it in terms of space. I roamed freely through about a quarter mile radius of woods, and I knew all the neighborhood dogs, who were also out without leashes or collars or adult supervision.
In his 2005 book The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv postulates the existence of Nature Deficit Disorder, a collection of symptoms including anxiety, attention disorders, and depression caused by a lack of exposure to the natural world. Though not included in any volume of the DSM, research points to a correlation between spending less time outdoors and an increase in feelings of distress.
How far from your home do you let your children freely roam without supervision? That radius of free movement has shrunk to a ninth of what it was twenty years ago. Louv cites parents’ fear brought on by a paranoid media as the culprits, but I would add an increasing population, which minimizes the amount of space a kid can roam on without encroaching on someone else’s property.
Much of children’s time indoors is not spent building model airplanes or solving jigsaw puzzles. Modern teenagers are constantly interacting with mobile devices and computers.
The Kaiser Foundation reports that 8-18 year-olds spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day using entertainment media. But because they are often using more than one device at a time (such as texting on their phone while playing a video game on their computer) “they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.”
I come from the last generation to grow up without internet. I first went online when I was 17 and AOL sent out those CD’s that offered 10 hours of free internet. We installed one on our home computer, and I used the ten hours up over the course of a few weeks. I went to chat rooms and read other teenagers’ angsty poetry. That was the total time I spent online until I went to college, where it took me a week to understand how my email worked.
When I was a kid, and was fortunate to grow up in a woody suburb and to have a back yard, I spent a lot of time outside. Whenever I irritated my parents, they would send me and the dog out into the yard, where we would play with snakes, jump from rock to rock, and eventually nap under the forsythia bush. There was a tree in the side yard we called the root beer tree because, if you pulled off a twig, removed the bark, and chewed on it, it tasted like root beer.
We did have a TV as a kid, and I remember our teachers worrying that the hour of violent cartoons we watched every week would turn us into sociopaths. That didn’t happen, of course. Humans are adaptable, and an adjustment of the environment, like adding in an hour of screen time a week, or even a day, won’t change a person’s nature.
But what are the limits of that adaptability? Is there an amount of alienation from the natural world, or an amount of staring at a two dimensional surface that will affect our mental and physical health? There is no current measure of the proper amount of nature for a child. Doctors recommend severely limiting screen time for children under two, and a maximum of an hour a day for children older than two. Depression, anxiety, childhood obesity, allergies, and attention disorders are all on the rise. Many cultural and environmental factors are likely at play, but research is beginning to show that the lack of time spent outdoors and the amount of time spent immersed in screen-based media are likely large causal factors in these ailments.
Your child’s exposure to nature doesn’t have to be in the wilderness, which has mostly disappeared. It doesn’t have to be laborious. A manicured city park will do, since dirt is dirt. The point is that we need to put down the technology and get back to nature. Push your children outside and let them discover the “real” world beyond their front door.