Going camping this summer? You should. Research shows exposure to nature has a measurable positive impact on mental and physical health. It even makes you nicer and more generous. Is there anything trees can’t do?
But what if you bring along your smartphone or some other device? Is the effect negated?
Most Canadians are aware of the recent kerfuffle over Parks Canada’s decision to install WiFi in some areas of national parks. The announcement prompted a lot of anger and snide remarks about people’s inability to restrain themselves from posting selfies on Facebook, suggesting that the combination of parks and digital media is anathema.
I’m a bit confounded by the reaction. Those who want to be in nature unencumbered by technology can turn off their toys – and, yes, make their children do so as well – while those who want to live in the current era can do what they like. Also, it makes parks safer.
Or am I kidding myself?
What the experts say
“In our study of job satisfaction and quality of life, workers who had access to a window or a plant within view of their desks said they had a better quality of life and view of their job. The people with no window or plants were miserable. Females tended to be more drawn to windows, whereas males tended to be more drawn to plants.
In our studies in classroom settings, students had better perceptions of the course and the instructor when there were plants and natural light.
A survey of gardeners versus non-gardeners found that gardeners had better overall perceptions of quality of life and considered themselves healthier and happier. They also had better attitudes toward and knowledge of nutrition.
We underestimate the value of nature and access to nature, how it can make you feel calmer and help deal with stress.”
TINA CADE, professor of horticulture, Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas
“In urban England, we found that living in an area with a high level of green space made a quantifiable improvement in mental health, as measured using a standard scale called the General Health Questionnaire.
In a second study we explored how people’s mental health changes if they move to a greener area. People who moved to greener areas had an immediate improvement in mental health that was sustained over the three years we followed them. This has potential implications for urban design policy: green spaces in urban areas may make a significant contribution to mental health, and that is a reason to preserve or increase access to them.
The most obvious implication is that it must be good for people to get out into whatever green space is around them.”
IAN ALCOCK, researcher, European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School, Exeter, UK
“Because researchers have turned to this topic relatively recently, most of the evidence is correlative, not causal, but it tends to point in one direction: experiences in the natural world appear to offer great benefits to psychological and physical health, and the ability to learn for children and adults.
When it comes to national parks and WiFi, I think we need a break from digital communication. Technology-fasting while spending time in the natural world may be the most effective antidote to the downsides of the digital age.
I believe that the more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need. I have no problem with WiFi at national park centres, major hotels and facilities, but most national park areas should remain WiFi-free.
I understand the safety argument, but cellphone coverage is probably adequate for that. We need to weigh other risks – including to our psychological and even physical health from never getting a break from non-stop electronic communications.”
RICHARD LOUV, author, Last Child In The Woods and The Nature Principle, chair emeritus of the Children & Nature Network
“Usually when we’re off with our family in a national park, it’s about maintaining and building a certain type of close bonding relationship with very specific people, and these technologies could pull people away from that experience, which is not good.
But technology also opens up new opportunities for people to maintain distant relationships while in national parks, and could also instigate new opportunities for some people to use these spaces.
Busy parents might feel more comfortable going to a park knowing they have access remotely.”
KEITH HAMPTON, associate professor of communication, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
“Exposure to nature has several benefits. One is increased energy. Even a 10-minute walk has been shown to enhance vitality. The effect is increased if you get immersed in nature, looking around, experiencing it. So the smartphone would interfere, because then you are not ‘in’ nature.
People appear to be kinder after nature immersion. Participants in our experiments who were shown nature scenes shared more money with others than those shown scenes of human artifacts.
Also, people who have been out in nature show a shift toward more compassionate attitudes. The effects are well demonstrated and replicated but not fully understood. However, we know that in nature people are more ‘in touch’ with themselves, including with their values. More generally, nature is calming and tension-reducing.”
RICHARD RYAN, professor of psychology, psychiatry and education, University of Rochester, New York