Children Express Ecophobia in their own Words

Strife, S. J. (2012). Children’s Environmental Concerns: Expressing Ecophobia. The Journal of Environmental Education, 43, 37-54.

Fear, cynicism, pessimism: increasingly, research suggests that these are the feelings kids have about environmental issues and the future of the planet. David Sobel has termed these feelings “ecophobia.” The author of this paper explains that kids “are worried about environmental problems and feel powerless to change current conditions.”

So this study aimed to look at the situation from children's perspective, and focused on American children because much of the current research is focused on kids outside the United States. The researcher interviewed 50 fifth graders (about half boys and half girls, from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds) in the Denver area about their environmental concerns and emotions. The kids' parents completed a demographic questionnaire, and the kids talked with the researcher about how they define the environment, their awareness of environmental problems, and their concerns and feelings about those problems. The kids also had the opportunity to draw pictures of how they thought the Earth might look in 100 years.

As in previous research, the interviews revealed that “children's concerns for the environment were commonly expressed through the emotions of sadness, fear, and anger in reaction to environmental problems.” The environmental problems kids mentioned most were destruction of nature (56%), global warming (38%), air pollution (38%), and killing animals (38%). Of the nine children who did not express negative emotions, seven were not aware of any environmental problems, and therefore had no concerns about them. And two kids were aware of environmental problems, but were not worried about them.

A majority of the children (72%) also expressed pessimism about the future Earth. Many held apocalyptic visions of the future, saying things such as, “everything is going to get destroyed,” or “maybe there is not going to be 100 years,” and “the world might flood from the heat getting too much.” Some, however, tempered their visions with an alternate, better scenario, which depended on humans taking action before it's too late. The 28% of children who were not pessimistic about the future envisioned a better future thanks to new technologies and better behavior. They tended to picture a world with “sugar cane-powered cars,” “less pollution coming out of the mufflers,” and “smarter” people who “are realizing that there are things you can actually do.”

Seventy percent of the children named television, news, and movies as the source of their fear. Some specifically mentioned The Discovery Channel and many discussed the movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which the New York City endures apocalyptic and rapid changes in response to climate change. The author concludes that “television, news and movies have a powerful impact on children's feelings about environmental problems perhaps heightening anxiety about, and fear of, environmental problems.” Interestingly, however, the children who talked about a future brightened by environmental solutions and green behavior said that parents or teachers had taught them about these solutions. “This tentatively suggests,” the researcher concludes, “that children who are made aware of solutions to environmental problems may be less likely to feel pessimistic about the future state of the Earth.”

Unfortunately, the results of this and previous research indicates that most kids get their environmental information from television and movies, which makes them fearful and frustrated. But, this research also indicates that parents and teachers can “provide antidotes to the prevailing pessimism” with age-appropriate and positive information about environmental solutions. The author suggests that environmental educators, in particular, can encourage a more positive outlook among young people by sharing solutions, and encouraging students to build a sense of agency through developmentally appropriate environmental projects close to home.

Ultimately, though, the author acknowledges that just because a fifth-grader feels pessimistic about the future does not necessarily determine what they'll do, now or as an adult. The author acknowledges that “given the tenuous relationship between environmental concern and behavior, one may question the importance of researching children's environmental concerns.” The answer isn't clear, but the author points to recent research on adults that suggests that strategies of fear and guilt are not effective motivators for environmental behavior, and to retrospective studies of adults who name childhood nature experiences and positive role models as important influences in the development of their environmental concern and activism. According to the author, this study has added to the body of evidence suggesting that kids are increasingly ecophobic. “The next step is figuring out if these feelings truly have long-lasting impacts.”

The Bottom Line

<p>Most kids today are feeling sad, fearful, and angry about environmental problems, and are pessimistic about the future. Television and movies are their main source of information about these problems, and seems to be the main source of their anxiety. But this research also indicates that parents and teachers can balance negative messages with more positive and hopeful information focused on solutions. Focusing on positive, age-appropriate information that helps kids build a sense of agency in dealing with environmental problems can go a long way toward encouraging kids to envision a more hopeful future. But it's important to note that this research did not explore how kids' feelings about the environment affected their actual environmental behaviors. Much of the current research suggests that these kinds of negative feelings may not be linked to positive environmental behaviors, but some studies suggest that these feelings can motivate kids to take action. More research needs to be done to better understand how these feelings affect environmental behaviors in kids and as they mature.</p>