When Screens Replace Backyards: UW researchers explore reduced connection to nature among children


As screen use increases, children’s Connection to Nature (CTN) is decreasing, which poses major concerns for their social development and overall wellbeing.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo published a paper titled “When screens replace backyards: strategies to connect digital-media-oriented young people to nature” which discusses the implications of reduced CTN among children and potential solutions for this problem. 

The paper noted that children’s CTN has been declining with each generation, as nature-based play becomes increasingly replaced by screens. This is concerning because CTN is positively linked to environmentally responsible behavior and healthy development.

“If people aren’t connected to nature, then they don’t grow to be concerned about it,” said Dr. Brendan Larson, a co-author of the paper and professor at UW’s Ffaculty of Environment. 

Building a connection to nature early in life is critical for a child’s development. A loss of this connection is referred to as Nature Deficit Disorder with symptoms such as sensory anesthesia, directed attention fatigue, place blindness, and more. A lack of CTN has also been linked to a lower sense of environmentalism exhibited later in life.

However, society’s dependence on technology makes finding an appropriate solution to a declining CTN more complex. 

“Aside from using [technology] less, what are the ways that we can use it to perhaps facilitate connection to nature?” Larson asked. 

The paper lays out five key recommendations for increasing CTN amongst digital-media-oriented youth: appealing marketing techniques, mentorship, strategic location selection, gamification, and appropriate learning approaches.

According to Larson, the purpose of this approach is to engage people who aren’t connected to nature and eventually “grow beyond just looking into a screen to actually going out into nature.” 

The gamification approach to tackling declining CTN, in particular, has become popular in the past decade through the success of Pokémon Go, which has accumulated approximately 1 billion downloads since its 2016 release. In terms of conservation, it is estimated that Pokémon Go players could capture 400 years of wildlife sightings in just 6 days

Pokémon Go’s success can be attributed to its user-friendly interface, meaningful personal narratives of each character, as well as the competitive aspect of the game.

A 2016 paper titled “Pokémon Go: Benefits, Costs, and Lessons for the Conservation Movement” said that the lessons and takeaways from Pokémon Go’s success can be applied to conservation “through the development of new conservation-focused AR games.”

“Conservationists shouldn’t just discount Pokémon GO,” Larson said. “How do we turn that [success] into a benefit for conservation?”

The “When screens replace backyards” paper was initially published in the summer of 2020, early into the COVID-19 pandemic. There is now room for further research, focusing on the impact of the pandemic on CTN.

“I think it’s pretty well established that [the pandemic] reduced connection to nature, because people, for a lot of it, weren’t allowed to get outside, at all perhaps at an extreme,” Larson said.

Increasing CTN amongst children is a crucial but often overlooked aspect in the fight against climate change. This research plays an important role in highlighting the importance of re-introducing nature-based play in our daily lives while also seeing technology as an asset, not an enemy.