Smartphone use is up in city parks, but down in forests


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While a visit to the great outdoors is a common prescription for reducing screen use, a ground-breaking new study finds that time outdoors doesn’t always reduce smartphone screen time.

The new research, which tracked the smartphone activity of 700 study participants over two years, shows that participants’ smartphone activity actually increased during visits to city parks and other urban spaces.

With smartphone use increasing worldwide, the study clearly identifies an efficient way to reduce the duration of use: participants who visited nature reserves or forests saw a significant decrease in screen time within first three hours, compared to visiting urban locations for the same amount of time.

The study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, is the first to show that today’s young adults spend more time on their smartphone screens than in nature, researchers said. Given the unprecedented access to the participants’ devices, the team found that the young adults in the study spent more than twice as much time on their smartphones as they did outside.

“Greentime, or time outdoors, has long been recommended as a way to divert our attention from the demands of everyday life, but before our study, little was known about whether nature provides a way for people to disconnect from the mobile devices that follow today. outside,” said lead author Kelton Minor, a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute. “While previous research has suggested that short trips to city parks can provide a digital detox, we’ve seen texting and phone calls actually increase. Indeed, longer visits to wilder places, such as forests or nature preserves, have helped people lose their screens. and withdraw their attention from their smartphones.”

The main advancement of the study is the novelty of the wealth of data compared to other smartphone studies, where participants typically report their own smartphone use or environmental habits. In this study, participants agreed to share their smartphone data—more than 2.5 million privacy-preserving activity logs from texts, calls and usage time—for science.

“Smartphones have an incredibly strong pull on our attention, which will undoubtedly increase in the future—that’s what many technology companies are doing,” said University of Vermont (UVM) co-author Chris Danforth, a Gund Fellow will preside. a new $20M big data project on the science of storytelling. “Given the reported connections between mental health and our digital lives, we need more studies like this to help establish ways to encourage a healthier relationship with technology.”

Discussing their findings, the researchers theorized that urban greenspace may instead be beneficial in enhancing long-distance social interactions—hence the increase in texts and phone calls in urban parks—but may interfere with opportunity for the individual to use nature’s properties that restore attention.

The increase in smartphone use has been linked to rising cases of anxiety, depression, and sleep problems, especially among the younger generation. At the same time, research from UVM and others has shown that nature has restorative benefits for our minds and bodies that bring joy comparable to a holiday like Thanksgiving or New Years. Researchers believe that visual and sensory experiences of nature help strengthen individuals’ ability to focus more on life beyond their smartphones.

The study is the first to compare time spent on smartphone screens with time spent in outdoor green spaces, according to the researchers. They found that even young adults who use their smartphones the most have reduced their use in natural areas the most, providing evidence that more wild greentime can provide a digital break for even the most connected.

The study—”Nature Exposure is Associated With Reduced Smartphone Use”—is by an international team of scientists from the US and Europe, including Columbia University, University of Vermont, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Copenhagen, and Technical University of Denmark. Researchers include Kelton Minor, Kristoffer Lind Glavind, Aaron J. Schwartz, Christopher M. Danforth, Sune Lehmann, and Andreas Bjerre-Nielsen.

Additional information:
Kelton Minor et al, Nature Exposure Linked to Reduced Smartphone Use, Environment and Behavior (2023). DOI: 10.1177/00139165231167165

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