Research Summary

When screens replace backyards: strategies to connect digital-media-oriented young people to nature

Strategies for improving digitally-attached youths’ Connections to Nature

Environmental Education Research
2020

People of all ages are spending less time connecting with nature and more time engaging with digital media. Connection to Nature (CTN), the connection a person feels to the natural world, has been linked to pro-environmental attitudes and environmentally responsible behaviors. It has been identified as a critical component of childhood development and wellbeing. Nature-based experiences, activities that take place in or are centered around nature, are key to developing CTN, especially for children and young adults. Yet, as children and young adults free time has shifted away from participating in nature-based activities and towards digital media, a generational loss of environmental knowledge has resulted. Thus, when creating nature-based activities or programs, it is important to consider how to engage with individuals who primarily participate in digital media related activities. In this literature review, the researchers explored the concept of videophilia, or the tendency to focus on activities involving electronic media and identified strategies for designing nature-based programs specifically for young people who are particularly connected to digital media.

The researchers conducted a literature review on the concept of videophilia, then outlined their recommendations. Videophilia was introduced in the mid-2000s, at which point scholars witnessed a societal change in human orientation from nature to digital media. Studies have shown an increase in screen time as digital media became a dominant leisure activity and an essential tool for cultural consumption and communication. Digital media can also contribute to an individual’s identity, and can have addictive qualities, especially for young people. When children spend more time engaging with digital media and less time participating in nature-based play, their CTN suffers. Videophilia presents a challenge for designing nature-based programs—impacts of these programs are often limited because participants have little interest in nature, which can be linked to the lack of CTN and increased screen time. Also, the quality of interactions with nature can vary based on the participant’s CTN. Therefore, these individuals may require different types of nature interactions to foster CTN.

The researchers conceptualized the relationship between CTN and digital media consumption with the Digital Media-Nature Orientation Continuum. The continuum provides a visual for the relationship between digital media orientation and nature orientation/CTN and identifies suggested attributes for interventions to promoted CTN. In general, low emotional attachment to nature is correlated to social media addiction, while a deep attachment to nature is correlated to a minimal interest in digital media. When designing nature-based programming, it is important to consider the continuum and the causes of these social-cultural shifts, such as urbanization, lifestyle changes within the family unit, and lack of enthusiasm from parents.

The researchers also presented five recommendations for developing nature-based programs that would appeal to digital media-oriented youth. These recommendations were designed to connect with a pre-existing interest in nature, foster comfort and curiosity in nature, and address social-cultural contributions to videophilia.

1) Ensure engagement strategies reach and appeal to digital-media-oriented youth

To make sure that information regarding programming reaches its target audience, advertising should be expanded outside traditional conservation methods (email, website, nature events) and to new engagement methods (partner with youth groups, relate to physical health, connect with popular media). Advertisements should be prepared to appeal to digital media-oriented youths, and to people from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds to encourage equity.

2) Select locations with unintimidating forms of nature to increase comfort levels of digital-media-oriented youth in the outdoors

Being comfortable in nature is key to fostering CTN. Managed natural spaces, such as parks, community gardens, or zoos, may encourage comfort and facilitate learning better than a less controlled space.

3) Create role models by involving families and mentors

Role models who will engage in nature-based activities with youths can be influential in fostering CTN for children. Families of youths should be encouraged to participate in programs to serve as role models for their children, and young adults with high levels of CTN could participate as peer mentors.

4) Integrate gamification techniques in program design

Programs should incorporate aspects of digital media to leverage existing interests among participants. Gamification, or the use of game design elements in other contexts, could be used to promote environmental behaviors and engagement with the program.

5) Use location-based, technology-enhanced learning approaches to leverage prior interests in digital media

The use of technology can enhance nature-based programs and encourage participants to connect technology and nature. Key examples of technology-enhanced learning include nature-based applications such as “iNaturalist” or “Pokémon Go.”

The researchers found that the above strategies should be used to engage participants at all points along the Digital Media-Nature Orientation Continuum, where digital use and prior experience in nature is acknowledged. They note that while there have been criticisms against using digital technology in environmental education, they find when used purposefully and well it can support children’s connection to nature.

This study had limitations. The study took the form of a literature review, which, while relatively comprehensive, could exclude some relevant research due to selection bias, lack of a broad literature search, or other influencing factors.

The researchers recommend using a combination of the five outlined strategies to create nature-based programming that appeals to a variety of audiences. They also recommend developing a protocol to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies and programs over time. Lastly, they suggest focusing future research on exploring the relationship between CTN, time spent in nature, and time using digital media.

The Bottom Line

Nature-based experiences are a key component in the development of youths’ connection to nature (CTN). However, as the dominant leisure activities for children and young adults shifts away from nature-based activities and towards digital media, youths are unable to develop CTN. The researchers explored the concept of videophilia, or the tendency to focus on digital-media oriented activities, then created a visualization of the relationship between digital media and CTN using the Digital Media-Nature Orientation Continuum. They then identified five strategies to engage youths who are more digital-media focused: (1) Ensure engagement strategies reach and appeal to digital-media-oriented youth; (2) select locations with unintimidating forms of nature to increase participant comfort levels; (3) create role models by involving families and mentors; (4) integrate gamification techniques into program design; and (5) use location-based, technology-enhanced learning approaches to leverage prior interests in digital media. The researchers recommend using a combination of these strategies to create nature-based programming that appeals to a variety of audiences.