There is no stopping the rapid growth of our digital consumption. It seems we have all been inducted so thoroughly into the digital mindset that we have become appendages of our devices.
People spend three to eight hours a day sitting, glued to their devices. Before COVID-19, less than a quarter of youth exercised daily; less than 5 percent of adults participated in a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity per day. We have fast become a society of sedentary machine dependents. Few of us spend regular time in the natural world, active and unplugged. Our already waning hours clocked in nature without devices have certainly fallen even farther since the pandemic began.
An expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that aside from lack of physical activity, simply failing to spend time in nature could be generating its own ill effects on human beings including a higher incidence of obesity, attention disorders, physical illnesses, anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
There is an obvious correlation between hours of the day spent sitting and staring at screens and a diminishing sense of aliveness. When responses are channeled through screens or truncated to LOL and TBH without context, tone, or actual facial recognition, we lose the critical social skill of reading cues and developing emotional responsiveness. We become social snipers who can leave comments or responses without accountability or any sense of the impact of their input. Humans are designed to be emotionally responsive, relational, and social, but in a single generation, young people are growing into adulthood without developing these parts of themselves, and adults are losing touch with that part as they sink into screen-mediated life.
Nature is an important antidote and balance to the losses humanity is experiencing due to the digital takeover. Frequent experiences of contact with the natural world and all its multi-sensory invitations profoundly integrate brain development. The natural world is a system of flourishing diversity and a model of the highest expressions of inclusivity and interdependency. Its gentle pace both soothes and enlivens us. It is the Living Web — a web we evolved to be part of. Our physical, mental, and emotional selves are in no way prepared for the virtual Web to hijack us away from the natural world so completely.
Even though we know better, we have largely failed to raise our children in an embodied, nature-centered way. For the vast majority, there has not seemed to be enough time to wander at leisure in forests or spend hours learning about creek creatures while ankle-deep in chilly snowmelt. We have been too busy: busy with school, with work, with after-school activities, and with the blowing-open of fascinating universes on ubiquitous screens.
PLANNING A RETURN TO NATURE
What would it mean to raise our children in a world dedicated to digital responsibility and nature proficiency? What will it take for us to use our devices wisely and in harmony with the natural world instead of our devices using us and removing us from that world? What does nature have to do with the right use of texting, searching, sending, and snapping?
Right now: recall one of your most memorable days in nature. Think about a walk you took with a friend on the beach or in the mountains. Remember a time you sat on a park bench and simply enjoyed looking at trees and other people. Notice the difference between that real-time sensual relationship to nature and the “screen between” phenomenon. Even the memory of time in nature is a whole different experience from time spent on a screen.
The natural world immediately touches and enlivens all of our senses. The more time we spend in the wilds of nature, the more we feel ourselves to be part of a larger creation. No one has ever said that they regretted lingering for too long in nature (unless they got a sunburn); and how many of us have bemoaned time lost in mindless internet rabbit holes?
The internet grabs us via inconsistent jolts of pleasure. As we scroll and click, we witness a rapid fire of content, likes, follows, and messages. We never know when something is going to come through that will give us our dopamine hit, and this creates the same brain chemistry experienced by the gambler dumping their life savings into a slot machine. Within a singular and intense focus on the screen, our ability to concentrate and to delay instant gratification shrinks.
Time spent moving through and engaging with nature lessens time on digital devices. It teaches the importance of personal impact; encourages patience; slows everything down, reducing emotional reactivity and increasing awareness of others’ needs and emotions; sensitizes the body; and builds a sense of stewardship and humility. Seasonal cycles reassure us of the natural order of things, giving us a more long-term perspective on growth and sustainability.
Being outdoors boosts the immune system, enhances oxygen flow to the brain, regulates the hormonal systems that manage sleep-wake cycles, improves sleep, rests and restores screen-tired eyes, promotes mental positivity, and improves memory and thinking capacity. Working together outdoors on a garden, farm, or building project teaches the essential skills of teamwork and cooperation, and the urgent new skillset of delaying gratification and building resiliency.
In this time where we are charged indefinitely with a lifesaving mandate to socially distance from one another, can we still prioritize the immune-building, soul connecting, community-enhancing experiences of nature adventures?
Yes. The species that created the internet can surely figure out how to address the complexity of time outdoors with some new parameters.
The task now is to reinvest our time in the natural world with caution and mindfulness. Great coordination will be required among educators and parents to allow for safe, constructive, creative outdoor play that observes rules for social distancing for as long as needed. As the past months with COVID-19 have drastically increased our dependency on the static and stasis of digital life, we must be even more mindful about including and integrating nature experiences to provide some balance.
What might this look like?
· Spending time each day interacting with Earth-based learning: growing food, planting flowers and trees, hiking, exploring, tending to animals in their natural settings. This would mean a great deal less time for mindlessly scrolling through lnstagram, Snapchat, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and so on. We must intentionally take mindful time in the natural world consistently enough to feel it as a living, ensouled thing; to gain the sensitivities, sensual aliveness, and connectedness to our instinctual and tribal genetics that time in nature brings. Fortunately, this is entirely possible to do while observing rules for social distancing!
I.e., In our own Santa Barbara a friend donated a part of their land for a “little, little farm” inspired by the documentary The Biggest Little Farm. Twice a week adults and teens meet to plant and grow food. (Now at a 10 ft distance) They learn together how to meet the joys and frustrations of all phases of growing crops. There will be abundant fruits and vegetables this summer that the teens will then deliver to families who need and cannot afford fresh food. The cycle of life, satisfying labor, and social charity are woven together and teens learn that their hearts, their heads, and their hands have a direct impact on their community.
Make one weekend day “Nature Day” and each week explore a new park or beach or nature destination.
Families and friends that create a ritual of exploring nature together not only feel closer but also healthier. Making time in nature optional often loses out to the immediate addiction to the screen play. Committing to one day a week to spend time in a natural setting changes the expectations and the behaviors over time. Having different people choose each week where the exploration will take place increases the investment and the joy of learning something new together.
“I can’t get my child to do anything that doesn’t involve screens…”
If you are a parent trying to manage a child’s use of digital devices, you may think that this aim to balance time in nature with time on devices sounds great, but is most likely in practice impossible.
When it comes to legislating behavior, it rarely works to tell people to just say no. Humans are driven by the next best emotional experience available. We need to set the stage for them to discover the gifts of engaging with nature, calmly create clear boundaries that impel them to disengage from devices and maintain consistency and compassion in enforcing those boundaries. It won’t happen quickly; their brains and bodies will feel the discomfort of newness as they shift, and most will protest and push back. It’s a long game with abundant rewards, and they will look to you to set the example. If you make spending time in nature with them a ritual and priority they will follow.
Young people’s dependence on devices is part of their generational burden and responsibility. What they need from adults is good examples, boundaries, and guidance in using those devices in ways that promote rather than sacrifice the health and well-being of themselves, other people, and the planet. We need to support them in discovering ways to manage themselves around the ever-present and never-satiating lure of the digital world and to create balance. Persistence, patience, and understanding are required, as well as role modeling making the effort to practice what you preach.
At this critical crossroads of human and planetary evolution we can cultivate centered, grounded, ambassadors of the Earth who have learned the temperate skillset of listening deeply, tending carefully, and being connected to the vibrant and fragile living web while also being masters of the internet superhighway.