A new Nature Conservancy-funded study has confirmed evidence of a growing trend: more American families are spending time in front of the television and away from the great outdoors. The study, published last month in the Journal of Development Processes, also cited serious consequences for the future of conservation.
“The greatest threat to conservation … may be more subtle than bulldozers and chainsaws,” wrote authors Patricia Zaradic, Ph.D and Oliver Pergams, Ph.D. “Direct experience with nature is the most highly cited influence on environmental attitude and conservation activism.” Researchers added if the youngest generation loses that experience, the future of conservation is in jeopardy.
The researchers also found that “videophilila,” as they call it, can have disturbing implications for children’s mental and physical health, educational achievement, well-being, and their personal values and priorities later in life. They are following up on the results of an earlier study, published last year, which found that per capita visits to U.S. national parks have been declining since 1987, after having risen for the previous 50 years. Video games, home movie rentals, Internet use, and rising fuel prices explained almost 98 percent of the decline in people visiting national parks.
Rebecca Smith, deputy director of The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin, expressed concern about the findings and reiterated the importance of connecting children with nature at an early age.
“I didn't become a conservationist when I started working at The Nature Conservancy,” said Smith, who also serves as chair of Wisconsin Outdoors Alliance Foundation, which is dedicated to educating children and adults alike about the need to conserve Wisconsin’s natural resources.
“I became a conservationist growing up in Wisconsin – swimming, fishing, and catching frogs and crayfish in lakes ‘up north’” Smith said. “It was from this great time in my life, where I enjoyed the simple beauty of nature, that I became so deeply committed to conservation.
“I’m worried about what children will lose by staying cooped up inside – and I’m worried about losing the next generation of conservationists, too."
In the study, researchers pointed out that outdoor play and nature experience have proven beneficial for cognitive functioning, reduction in symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and an increase in self-discipline and emotional well being at all developmental stages. But American children, on average, are spending only 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors each week.
Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist for The Conservancy noted that, “This alienation from nature is a growing trend worldwide and could be the most serious threat to conservation for future generations.” He added, “Today, the majority of humans live in cities, and urbanization is accelerating so rapidly that by 2050 only a small portion of the human population will live outside urban areas. The more disconnected city dwellers are from natural landscapes, the less people understand how their well being is inextricably linked to the health of the natural world.”
The Conservancy continues to step up its efforts to engage young people in environmental and conservation issues by offering podcasts for “nature on the go” and by allowing people to join the Great Places Network via email. The Conservancy has also worked with parents on a “Take Your Child To Nature Day” and on other education activities. There are ample volunteer opportunities at the Conservancy’s nature preserves in Wisconsin.
Researchers are recommending that long-term research be conducted to track children’s development through adulthood and assess their health, achievement, and professional success, in addition to their environmental awareness.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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