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People use smartphones even more in parks, but less in forests

Many believe that stepping outside and immersing oneself in nature could be a remedy for the overuse of screens. However, a groundbreaking study has recently discovered that this isn’t always the case. Spending time outdoors doesn’t necessarily equate to less screen time.

The research, which kept a close eye on the smartphone activity of 700 participants over two years, found an unexpected twist. As participants wandered through city parks and urban green spaces, their smartphone use actually escalated.

The rise in global smartphone use has posed many challenges, and this study points to one possible solution. Participants who traded concrete jungles for actual forests and nature reserves experienced a significant reduction in screen time within the first three hours of their visit. This is compared to a similar amount of time spent in urban settings.

How the study was conducted

Featured in the journal Environment and Behavior, the study stands as the first of its kind to highlight a worrying trend among young adults. The researchers observed that this demographic now spends significantly more time engaged with their smartphone screens than enjoying nature.

Access to the participants’ devices unveiled an unsettling truth. Young adults were found to spend more than double their outdoor time on their smartphones.

“Greentime, or time outdoors, has long been recommended as a way to restore our attention from the demands of daily life. Yet before our study, little was known about whether nature provides a way for people to disconnect from the mobile devices that now follow us into the great outdoors,” explained study lead author Kelton Minor, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute.

“While past research suggested that short trips to city parks might provide a digital detox, we saw texting and phone calls actually go up. It was really the longer visits to wilder areas, like forests or nature preserves, that helped people get off their screens and wrest back their attention from their smartphones.”

A significant aspect of this study lies in the depth of its data, surpassing that of prior smartphone studies. Typically, these studies rely on participants to self-report their smartphone use or environmental behaviors. 

In contrast, participants in this study agreed to share their smartphone data. This included over 2.5 million privacy-preserving logs of activity from texts, calls, and screen time, all in the name of science.

What the researchers learned

Chris Danforth, a Gund Fellow at the University of Vermont (UVM) and co-author of the study, expressed his concern. “Smartphones have an incredibly powerful pull on our attention, which will undoubtedly increase in the future – that’s what many technology companies are working on.”

“Given the reported connections between mental health and our digital life, we need more studies like this to help establish ways to encourage a healthier relationship with technology.”

Upon reflection, the researchers theorize that urban green spaces may actually enhance remote social ties – explaining the increase in texts and phone calls in city parks. However, this might disrupt the individual’s opportunity to utilize the attention-restoring properties of nature.

The rise in smartphone use has been tied to an increase in anxiety, depression, and sleep problems, predominantly among younger generations. Simultaneously, studies from UVM and other institutes have found that nature has restorative benefits for our minds and bodies. These benefits can even generate a sense of joy akin to a major holiday like Thanksgiving or New Year’s.

The researchers speculate that the visual and sensory experiences of nature help individuals better focus on life beyond their smartphones. This study stands as the first to contrast time spent on smartphone screens with time spent in outdoor green spaces. 

Interestingly, the experts found that even the most digitally connected young adults reduced their smartphone usage when in natural areas. This provides evidence that more time spent in wilder green spaces may indeed offer a much-needed digital break.

More about the health benefits of nature

Spending time in nature, often referred to as ‘green time’, has been linked to a multitude of health benefits, both physical and psychological. Here’s a more in-depth look at these benefits:

Stress Reduction

Numerous studies have shown that spending time in nature can help decrease stress levels. A natural environment can lower cortisol, a hormone often used as a marker for stress. The calm and serenity offered by green spaces can help individuals relax and rejuvenate.

Improved Mood and Reduced Anxiety

Exposure to nature can enhance mood and alleviate symptoms of anxiety. Walking in a park or forest, for instance, has been shown to reduce negative thoughts and boost mood-enhancing neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

Better Physical Health

Green spaces often encourage physical activity, which has an array of health benefits, including reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health conditions. Some studies have also found that people recover faster from surgery or illness when they have a view of nature.

Enhanced Concentration and Cognitive Function

Nature can help restore mental fatigue, improving concentration and productivity. This effect, known as attention restoration theory, suggests that natural environments demand less directed attention, allowing the brain to recover and replenish.

Improved Immune Function

Research from Japan on ‘forest bathing’ or ‘shinrin-yoku’ has shown that spending time among trees can boost the immune system. This happens due to the inhalation of phytoncides, airborne chemicals produced by plants, which increase the number and activity of a type of white blood cell that kills tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.

Increased Happiness and Well-being

Regular exposure to nature has been linked to increased feelings of happiness, satisfaction, and overall well-being. This is partly due to nature’s ability to foster a greater sense of belonging and purpose.

Enhanced Creativity

There’s evidence to suggest that spending time in nature can boost creativity. This could be due to the removal of technology and other everyday distractions, allowing for a more free flow of ideas.

While these benefits are compelling, it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience with nature is unique. Some people may find significant mental health improvements after spending time outdoors, while others might notice more subtle effects. As always, it’s essential to combine time in nature with other aspects of a healthy lifestyle for optimal well-being.


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