Research Summary

Electronic screen technology use and connection to nature in Canadian adolescents: A mixed methods study

For Canadian adolescents, as electronic media use increases, connection to nature decreases

Canadian Journal of Public Health

A theory referred to as the “displacement hypothesis” suggests that the “time spent with electronic screens displaces time that young people historically spent engaging in other activities, including going outside.” One objective of this study was to determine if screen time might also be replacing or diminishing young people’s connections to nature.

The study was conducted in Canada and included two strands. A qualitative strand involved 74 youth in focus groups and interviews. A quantitative strand involved an analysis of approximately 24,000 youth responses to a national survey. Findings from both strands were then integrated to (1) explore relationships between connections with nature and the use of electronic screens and (2) to develop evidence-based recommendations for health promotion for adolescents. Canadian youth involved in this research ranged in age from 10 to 18. Some focus group and interview questions related to the youths’ understanding of the importance of connections to nature in their lives. The survey included questions about the youths’ use of electronic screen technology and about connections to nature.

Survey responses showed that 60.4% of boys and 62.7% of girls felt that feeling connected to nature was important in their lives. For both boys and girls, these percentages decreased with age. Survey responses also showed that the use of all forms of electronic screen technology increased with age. There were some gender differences in screen use, with girls reporting more frequent daily texting, social media use, and instant messaging than boys. Boys, on the other hand, reported more frequent video game use and watching TV programs, movies, and videos. For both boys and girls, as electronic media use increased, the importance of connections to nature decreased. Themes emerging from the overall data showed that (1) Canadian youth often preferred the use of electronic screen technology over being outdoors in nature; (2) the use of electronic screen technology tends to be addictive; (3) some youth perceive indoors as safer and more comfortable than outdoors; and (4) temporary disconnection from electronic screen technology may lead to positive experiences with nature.

This research suggests that “exposures to electronic screen technology may be related to declines in the importance of nature in the lives of young people.” Three specific recommendations for intervention are offered: re-frame adult-driven fears about being in unprotected environments; teach young people how to be comfortable in outdoor environments; and provide opportunities for youth to disconnect from electronic media for a period of time in a natural environment. Implementation of these recommendations can potentially increase connection with nature and exposure to nature which, in turn, could enhance the mental health of young people.