Editor’s note: Richard Louv is the Chairman Emeritus the Children and Nature Network. He is also the author of “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
When is enough enough? Non-electronic, non-programmed, independent play is essential for children’s cognitive and emotional development, and yet a growing info-blitzkrieg is overwhelming our children.
The issue was brought into focus over the past two weeks, related specifically to online social networking. News media reported that Facebook wants to drop the restrictions that allegedly prevent children younger than 13 from opening their own Facebook accounts. Instead, the social network would install a mechanism that would require parental involvement.
Plenty of children have faked their age to cruise Facebook. According to Consumer Reports, 5.6 million children under the age of 13 are on the site. Many of them are under the age of 10 -- some of them are in kindergarten. Over a third of the parents know their children are using Facebook. Some them actually helped their kids join the service. How’s that working out for kids? For some, just fine. Social networking can help children with socially isolating disabilities. Maybe kids do need a properly monitored social networking zone, if they and their parents will use it.
But here’s the larger issue. Do we -- parents, educators, high-tech barons -- really want to keep piling on layer after layer of indirect, electronic experiences? The point isn’t that social networking is bad, but that daily, monthly, yearly, lifelong electronic immersion, without a force to balance it, can drain a person’s ability to pay attention, to think clearly, to be productive and creative.
School boards assume that more computers -- and more electronic networking -- are the keys to creativity and innovation. Some of the wisest pioneers in the tech world, the ones who created the Internet as we know it, laugh at that assumption. Most of them grew up before personal computers. They were building forts in the woods, not tweeting.
It’s a cliché, but true: We need balance.
Science tells us more each year about how the power of nature experiences reduces stress, improves human health and well-being and the ability to learn and create. For example, a series of studies at the University of Illinois suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, that students do better on cognitive tests when their dorm windows view natural settings, and that residents of public housing complexes report better family bonding when they live near trees.
Other pertinent research focuses on adults. A few weeks ago, a study conducted at the University of Kansas suggests that “people from all walks of life show startling cognitive improvement -- for instance, a 50% boost in creativity -- after living for a few days steeped in nature.”
Yes, the Internet is a marvel. It serves as an open university. It seeds revolutions. But it’s also a playground for cyber-bullies and privacy invaders, and, overused, it can exact a steep neurological and developmental price.
Too much tech can narrow the senses and rob time that might otherwise be used for physical exercise, imaginative independent play, and that most radical act: Having a face-to-face conversation with a real human being. Research also suggests a more direct impact. For example, British psychologists report a link between excessive Internet use and depression.
Wringing our hands (while trying to type on a computer) about the info-blitzkrieg won’t help. It’s not going to stop.
Instead, we need to find a cost-effective balancing agent. One source is right outside the door. The more high-tech our society becomes, the more we need nature. In a virtual age, it’s time to reconnect our children (and ourselves) to life.