BURLINGTON, Vt. — Modern living has become synonymous with smartphone scrolling, but spending all day glued to a screen is hardly a recipe for a well-rounded lifestyle. Countless people visit green spaces in an attempt to cut down on their phone usage, but fascinating new findings from an international study suggest simply going outdoors isn’t always enough to reduce screen time. Researchers at the University of Vermont tracked smartphone activity and habits among 700 people over the course of two years, ultimately revealing smartphone activity actually increased during visits to either city parks or other urban green spaces.
However, the study also reports those who visited nature reserves or forests enjoyed notable declines in screen time over the first three hours, in comparison to others visiting urban locations for the same amount of time.
This project, conducted in collaboration with Columbia University, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Copenhagen, and the Technical University of Denmark, is the first ever to show modern young adults now spend far more time on their smartphones than in nature, study authors explain. Thanks to unparalleled access to participants’ phones, researchers observed that young adults spent over twice as much time on their smartphones as they spent around nature.
“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,” says lead study author Kelton Minor, a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Data Science Institute, in a media release. “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.”
‘Smartphones have an incredibly powerful pull on our attention’
A key component of this project was the novelty of the data’s richness in comparison to other smartphone studies, in which participants usually self-reported their smartphone use or environmental behaviors. For this newest study, participants agreed to share their smartphone data (over 2.5 million privacy-preserving logs of activity from texts, calls, and screen time) for research purposes.
“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,” explains University of Vermont (UVM) co-author Chris Danforth, a Gund Fellow who will co-lead a new $20M big data project on the science of storytelling. “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.”
In light of their findings, researchers theorize urban green spaces can still be useful for enhancing remote social ties — hence the increase in texts and phone calls in urban parks — but may also end up disrupting peoples’ opportunities to take advantage of the attention-restoring properties of nature.
Increased smartphone use has been linked to rising rates of anxiety, depression, and sleep problems across society, especially among younger generations. Still, earlier research from UVM and others indicates that nature offers restorative benefits for our minds and bodies that delivers a sense of joy similar to a holiday like Thanksgiving. Researchers hypothesize that the visual and sensory experiences that come with nature help to strengthen our abilities to better focus on life beyond smartphones.
This is the first project to compare time spent scrolling on smartphones to time spent in outdoor green spaces, the research team notes. Study authors found that even young adults who typically used their smartphones the most ended up cutting down on usage in nature areas, supplying evidence that more wild green time may provide a much-needed digital break for even the most connected individuals.
The study is published in the journal Environment and Behavior.
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