Plugging Into Nature

By Tom Clynes

One parent’s quest to raise analog kids in a digital age

Authors note: This essay first appeared in Issue 4 of Adventure Journal.

I was at the campfire, flipping pancakes, when 13-year-old Ethan came over and asked if he could use my phone.

“I want to show those guys a YouTube video,” he said, nodding toward his brother, Sam, and my sons, Charlie and Joe.

I looked up and arched an eyebrow. “Seriously, Ethan?” I said. “We all agreed this would be an electronics-free camping trip. Remember?”

“I know,” he said, “but it’s a video about camping.”

Before Ethan could fall further into the irony hole he was digging, I plopped a flapjack onto his plate and he rejoined the other boys. “I guess we’ll have to watch it when we get home,” he sighed.

Keeping kids connected with nature used to be simpler. For my own parents, it was mostly a matter of opening the back door and setting us loose in the neighborhood, where we’d find an orchard or a brush pile or some other semi-wild place to fool around.

But for 21st-century children, such improvised outdoors scenarios are increasingly rare. My parents’ generation didn’t use “parenting” as a verb, and what they called just kids being kids is now called free-range—a concept that alarms hyper-vigilant would-be advocates. Kids don’t have the same kind of license to run around outside, and even if they do there’s the ever-present draw of electronics. As smartphones and social media become ever more ubiquitous and embedded, the love of nature—what E.O. Wilson called biophilia—is morphing into videophilia, a love of electronic media.

“We’ve quickly gone from a place where the average child would choose active outside activities to one where kids choose sedentary activities involving computers and smartphones and video,” says conservation ecologist Patricia Zaradic. She and Oliver Pergams co-authored two studies that found that per-capita visits to national parks and forests, and other indicators of nature recreation, have declined in developed countries since the late 1980s, due in large part to the increase in the amount of time spent on electronic media.

The trends they’ve identified have alarmed conservationists, whose efforts to protect wilderness depend on the support of people who connected with nature during their formative years. A rising generation of adults with little experience with wild places and little understanding of their value may ultimately have a greater impact on biodiversity and ecosystem health than bulldozers, invasive species, or even greenhouse gas emissions, some think.

“If Pergams and Zaradic are right and these trends continue,” says Peter Kareiva, the former science director at the Nature Conservancy, “then the pervasive decline in nature recreation may well be the world’s greatest environmental threat.”

More immediately, the rapid shift from active outdoor activities to sedentary time with electronic devices has made today’s children the subjects of a vast, unplanned experiment—one whose effects are just beginning to be extensively studied and understood.

Of course, previous generations wrung their hands over the dangers of everything from comic books to rock n’ roll. Is this just the next thing for parents to fret and nag about?

“I’m entirely skeptical of those claims that every generation makes about how much worse things are now,” says Douglas Gentile, a child psychologist at Iowa State University. “But if you look at the data, it’s clear that there’s something going on now that’s entirely unprecedented.”

In the 1950s, the average adolescent spent about 55 hours per week sleeping, 30 to 35 hours in school, and another 15 eating and attending to personal care. That left 65 to 70 hours for everything else.

By 1980, TV had taken 14 hours of that free time. Television-watching doubled to 28 hours in 2000 and peaked at 31 hours in 2010. But by then video games were gobbling 13 hours and other computer time was taking 10.

“That leaves only 10 to 15 hours a week for anything else,” says Gentile. “And that’s the average, so half the kids have even less time.”

Until recently, much of the research on the effects of electronic entertainment focused on content. We know, for instance, that children who play violent video games tend to become more aggressive and less empathetic. The other side is what kids are not getting—the opportunity costs. “When children are spending 50-plus hours a week on a screen,” says Gentile, “that’s time not spent creating, exploring, running around outside.”

Though our understanding is still developing, a growing body of research from a variety of disciplines shows that digital technology has a measurable, negative impact on the human brain. Computers, video games, and smartphones—which, we may forget, did not exist 10 years ago—are tweaking our synapses in ways that affect our sleep, moods, concentration, memory, and learning. These effects are amplified in “digital natives”—younger people who started using technology during critical stages of brain development.

American teens are now smoking and drinking less, but are far more likely to be addicted to social media or video games. Many school counselors believe that social media is playing a major part in the spike in major episodes of teenage depression, which jumped by 37 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to a just-released study in the journal Pediatrics. Other recent research links technology overexposure in developing brains to cognitive delays, impaired learning, and attention deficits.

Sedentary kids who spend most of their time indoors are more likely to be obese and more likely to carry that extra weight into adulthood—boosting their risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart attack. Largely due to obesity, the current generation of children may be the first in modern human history in which a high percentage of individuals will not outlive their parents.

If exposure to digital technology has a demonstrated and measurable impact, so too does exposure to nature—and it seems to be almost wholly beneficial. Researchers have found that the ever-shrinking fraction of children who regularly connect with nature achieve more academically and are healthier physically, socially, and emotionally. Exposure to nature also contributes to faster stress recovery, improved self-esteem and cognitive functioning, and boosts in focus, self-discipline, problem-solving, and communication skills. Compared to digital junkies, they’re like the Six-Million-Dollar Man: smarter, faster, stronger, better in every way.

Beyond the evidence, I’m certain that helping my kids fall in love with the outdoors is critical to boosting their chances of having high-quality lives. I suspect that a species that loses touch with its habitat cannot be fully alive. When we can’t see a wild animal, stride over uneven ground, or sleep under the stars, we lose our connection to the original source of our values, and our imagination.

My own parents weren’t hikers or campers; it was my high school friends who opened up the backcountry for me. Later, I was able to build a career around traveling to wild, remote places. Today my job, like so many others, includes far too much screen time, to the point that the natural world can at times become a mere intellectual concept, severed from the joyful experience of the real thing. When that happens I feel less human; my life becomes less fun.

I desperately want to keep my children out of the traps I’ve fallen into. Back in 2003, a couple of years before Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the growing gap between children and the environment, my ex-wife and I moved our family from Brooklyn to Vermont. For the next seven years our sons’ world was forests and mountains, swimming holes and rope swings, sledding and skating and skiing. At times it seemed as if we were living in a Norman Rockwell painting, populated by like-minded rural progressives.

Divorce and its aftermath pulled us down from the Green Mountains and into the flatlands. We wound up in a Midwestern college town nearing the end of a long transition from countercultural oasis to could-be-anywhere suburb. My spirits drooped when I heard Charlie’s first-grade teacher gushing about new computers in the classroom (education researchers say that it’s clear that technology in lower-elementary classrooms impedes social development and learning); they fell even lower as I came to realize that no visit to a nearby park or “natural area” would ever be unaccompanied by the sound of motors.

When I saw a smart-phone-immersed parent at a restaurant, ignoring a child who was in turn ignoring her parent and the rest of the world as she poked away at a tablet, I’d cluck with disapproval. Before long, though, I’d catch myself sneaking glances at my own phone in restaurants, unable to resist a quick dopamine hit from a colleague’s comment, a dating-site match, a nugget of news or gossip. I didn’t need an expert to tell me that the behaviors we’re modeling for our kids are unhealthy. The more we attach to technology the more we detach from our children—who then attach to their own devices, often in addictive ways.

Even though my sons’ lives are less dominated by electronics than many of their friends, I’ve noticed that the more time they spend in the online world, the more distracted and irritable they seem. And I can’t resist comparing their childhoods to what I imagine I could give them if we could go back to a place where human-to-human connections are more valued, and where a four-season playground is as close as any door in the house.

But that’s probably not going to happen. With each passing year, electronics and all they bring are woven more deeply into our culture, and my dream of raising analog kids feels further away.

I know I’m not alone. “Parents often say that they feel out of control with technology, that they can’t have any impact,” says Gentile, the child psychologist. Gentile’s team studied 1,300 third- to fifth-graders over the course of a school year and found that when parents are involved in children’s use of electronics, the results are impressively positive. Kids whose parents set limits on media got more sleep, scored higher grades, exhibited more cooperative social behaviors, gained less weight, and were less aggressive with their peers.

“It’s clear that parents can have a big impact and that the ripple effects extend across several different areas of children’s lives, out into the future,” says Gentile.

We parents need to throttle back our own media use. And we need to insist that schools balance technology with outdoor classrooms and nature-based programming, and support novel and promising alternative programs like “forest kindergartens,” where much of the learning takes place in nature.

We also need to provide better outdoor alternatives for kids, or at least some communal oversight of them so other parents will feel comfortable letting their kids run wild—as Zaradic and her husband did when they moved their young family to a new neighborhood in Pennsylvania. “We made ourselves available to be outside and vaguely supervising the kids, so other parents could send their kids out to play,” the researcher says.

Within months, the presence of so many children playing outside actually began to attract more young families to the trend-bucking block.

“It became the neighborhood where the kids are always outside, creating their own fun,” says Zaradic. “It wasn’t fully intentional; we were just living out our values. But it created a cultural shift. All it takes is a couple of parents to say ‘I’ll be the one.'”

But there’s a big difference between domesticated, neighborhood nature and the Great Outdoors. It’s one thing to swing on a jungle gym; it’s another to camp in a real jungle.

When my sons and I spend more than two or three days away from houses and roads—whether we’re backpacking in the Grand Canyon, rock climbing at Joshua Tree, or caving in Kentucky—I begin to notice changes in my kids, and me. Away from electronics, we chill out and lose the insecurity of FOMO. My sons’ eyes, so used to looking down at two-dimensional screens, begin to brighten as they look up and around, taking in a world that’s infinitely richer than two dimensions could ever convey. Distracted by a jumping fish rather than the ping of an incoming message, the kids begin to pick up on details and cues with all their senses. I can see them regaining their equilibrium.

As they learn how to take care of themselves in the wild, their growing confidence is tangible. Freed from the captivity of to-do lists that don’t relate to survival or fun, we all begin to regain our footing, with the world and with each other. We operate together with an ease that’s harder to come by when we’re among the flat-screen distractions that we’ve somehow come to accept as real life.

I realize, though, that my dream of raising analog kids may not be possible, or even desirable. We’re not going back to the pre-internet days. And adolescents, wherever they grow up, need to be part of the social world of their peers. The surge in cyber-bullying notwithstanding, social networks help to connect kids when they’re not physically with each other. Portable tech has certainly made the outdoors more accessible to 21st century biophiles, helping us plan our adventures, guide us to trailheads, and remind us where we parked our cars. How many excursions has Google Earth inspired, how many expeditions has it made better, safer, more fully planned? How many more miles of running or vertical feel of cycling has Strava spurred into the world?

The answer, I realize, is not to think in terms of analog or digital, but to help kids (and maybe each other) develop what Louv calls “hybrid minds,” by balancing exposure and maximizing the skills that come from both the virtual and natural worlds.

“The future will belong to the nature-smart,” says Louv, who argues that the more tech-dependent we become, the more we’ll need nature to keep our senses.

That sort of duality seems worthy of embracing. If we can’t give our children simpler times, we can at least fortify them against the increasing stresses of society and help them learn how to keep themselves happy, healthy, and human.

Recently, my sons and I were looking at pictures—yep, on a computer—from summer backpacking trips. For the last few years we’d been tackling sections of Vermont’s Long Trail, which runs along the spine of the Green Mountains. I marveled at the transition from the days when the shy post-toddlers could walk just two or three miles a day and Dad carried everything and did everything. Now, they pack their own packs, set up tents, start fires, and laugh and learn from the thru-hikers we meet along the way.

And they jump off cliffs: We came across some shots we’d taken last year, right after our arrival at a campsite at a mountain lake rimmed by 30-foot-high rock ledges. It must have taken 25 minutes, maybe more, for Charlie and Joe to muster the courage to make the leap into the water, a feat that I recorded in a quick series of still photographs. Months later, gathered around the computer, we stitched the frames together and created a slow-motion moving image of their launch and long free-fall, followed by a splash and then two faces surfacing, elated and triumphant.

“We need to show this to Ethan,” Charlie said, laughing. It took me a moment, then I got it: We were finally watching that video about camping—and we’d made it ourselves.

Author, photojournalist and National Geographic speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment, education, and archaeology. His work appears in National GeographicThe New York TimesNature, Popular Science, The Atlantic, and other publications. As a keynote speaker, Tom works with organizations that want to catalyze creativity and engagement at their events, inspiring audiences and bringing them along on assignment to some of the world’s most intriguing places. To contact Tom and discover more about his memorable and inspiring programs, please email email