It’s the heat of the summer – do you know where your kids are? According to a recent study, they’re probably in a darkened room somewhere, staring at a television or computer monitor.
The study, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Environmental Management, found that per capita visits to U.S. national parks have been declining for nearly 20 years – largely as a result of increased time spent watching television and movies, playing video games and surfing the web.
Although the study was conducted in the U.S., and Canadians tend to have stronger ties to the outdoors, I would be surprised if the trends were that different here. Canadians watch less television than do Americans, but we also have some of the highest internet usage rates in the world. We stare at computer screens more than practically anybody else.
And while lower attendance levels in national parks do not necessarily mean people are spending less time outdoors in general, the connection to time glued to electronic media is hard to ignore. In fact, the evidence was strong enough for the researchers to conclude: “We may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people’s appreciation of nature (biophilia, Wilson 1984) to ‘videophilia,’ which we here define as “the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.” Such a shift would not bode well for the future of biodiversity conservation.”
Indeed. The Internet is a fantastic tool, as is television. Even video games can have educational value as well as be entertaining. But as with anything, there needs to be a balance. When I was a boy, escaping to the air-conditioned comfort of a movie theatre during the heat of the summer was a real treat. But it was an exception, not the norm. Far from spending the majority of my time indoors, I spent most of my waking hours outside – swimming, fishing, hiking or just exploring.
Times certainly change, but when are behaviours change in a way that alienate us from the natural world upon which we depend for our food, our energy, our natural resources – our very lives – that, to me, is cause for concern.
We tend to forget that the world we live in today – the electronic age – barely registers in the timeline of human history. For the vast majority of that history, we were a rural people. We lived in family groups and small villages and followed the natural cycles of days and nights, and the seasons. We didn’t buy processed food from the mini-mart, text message people halfway around the world or watch infomercials at three a.m. bathed in the glow of artificial light. Most of the modern electronics we take for granted today have only been around for 50 years or less.
These electronics may make our lives easier, but I sometimes question if they are making our lives better. People tap away on Blackberries and personal computers during meetings. They take cell phone calls during the birth of their children and play video games for days at a time, virtually without a break. They walk down the street, listening to MP3 players, lost in their own world. We seem to be plugged in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That strikes me as decidedly unbalanced.
So try this; for the rest of the summer, or maybe just a week, or even a day – unplug. Put away all your electronic gizmos and go outside. Lie under a tree. Watch the clouds. Smell the air. Enjoy real life, rather than a virtual version of it.
Most important, take the kids.