A brief exposure to virtual nature can promote adolescents’ mental well-being, nature connection, and spirituality

Owens, M. ., & Bunce, H. . (2023). The effect of brief exposure to virtual nature on mental wellbeing in adolescents. Scientific Reports, 13. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-44717-z

Adolescence is recognized as a time of multiple developmental transitions and thus “a period of vulnerability for mental health difficulties.” While the World Health Organization defines adolescence as the 10-19 age range, some scholars suggest that 10-24 age range may be more meaningful. This study was based on the evidence-supported idea that nature-based interventions (NBI) may alleviate mental health difficulties in young people through both prevention and intervention approaches. It adds to the literature in several ways: (1) by focusing on the potential impact of virtual nature, (2) by focusing specifically on adolescents, and (3) by including potential contributions to spirituality.

A total of 76 adolescents (age 18-25) in the UK participated in the study. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups, with one group watching a short (6 minute) woodland nature video and the other group watching an “urban video” of the same length. The urban video depicted a busy underground train setting. After watching the videos, all of the participants completed a survey assessing their levels of stress, relaxation, affect, rumination, mood, attention, nature connection, and nature spirituality. Spirituality in this context “may include the search for meaning and purpose in life, desire for harmony, hope for an experience of transcendence or recognising that there is something greater than ourselves, or with reference to that which is beyond ordinary human experience.” Assessment tools embedded in the survey were based on well-validated psychometric instruments.

Adolescents watching the nature video generally scored higher on the indicators of mental health and well-being than adolescents watching the urban video. These beneficial results applied to assessments of stress, relaxation, affect, mood, and attention. The group watching the “nature video” also showed an increase in nature connection and nature spirituality, while the group watching the “urban video” did not.

This research supports the idea that brief virtual nature interventions may be effective in promoting adolescent mental health, connectedness to nature, and spirituality. The spirituality component of the study is unique in that it represents a seldom researched area of young people’s connectedness with nature. As real-life nature engagement can be compromised for some groups due to such barriers as time, distance, and fear-related constraints, it may be helpful to know that virtual nature interventions may contribute to adolescent mental health and well-being.

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