Technology in Nature: Not an Oxymoron After All

kids on an ipad outside a tent

Today, it’s common to hear concerns about the negative effects of too much screen time among kids. There are certainly reasons to be worried, but it’s also not reasonable to assume that technology is always the enemy of physical activity and time outdoors. These days, technology is often integrated into our experience of nature and exercise through smart watches, phone apps, and digital maps.

woman with tablet leaning against a tree

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point wanted to better understand the relationship between technology use and the experience of outdoor recreationists. They surveyed people using different public forests in Wisconsin about their use of personal electronic devices like phones, tablets, and Fitbits. What they found was that, in general, no one wanted technology to be a replacement for outdoor experiences. People agreed that watching a nature documentary on TV is not the same as going for a walk in the woods. But many people were excited about possibilities to integrate the two. Using technology while engaging in recreation may help people feel more comfortable using public greenspace because they have access to maps as well as a way to communicate should they need help.

woman on cell phone in front of a mountain

Of course, sometimes the prevalence of technology in the outdoors can make people feel a little too comfortable – leading them to take unnecessary risks like snapping a selfie with a grizzly bear. But for many, technology offers a new pathway to getting engaged with outdoor spaces. Diversifying the representation of who uses parks and public lands through social media can invite people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and other historically marginalized groups into spaces that may have previously felt exclusive. Online connections through digital meet-up groups can help recreationists form a sense of community and become regular users of outdoor spaces. You can hear Roslynn Powell, one of the researchers from the University of Wisconsin study, talk about her findings and her thoughts on technology in nature more largely through the Humans and the Environment podcast from Dr. Bethany Cutts, professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management.

kids looking at a phone

For kids, engaging with technology in the outdoors through citizen science projects can help exercise and sunshine feel more exciting. Citizen science often relies on apps to collect and log data. Some examples of digital citizen science projects are iNaturalist, which identifies plants and animals, GLOBE Clouds from NASA, which tracks weather patterns, and Loss of the Night, which measures light pollution.

digital park map

Sometimes it feels great to put down your phone and head outside technology-free. But it’s also important that we don’t play gatekeeper to outdoor spaces by shaming folks who want integrate their use of technology into their outdoor recreation. There are lots of great ways to stay active and spend time in nature, both with and without technology. For kids especially, it’s all about balance. They need breaks from screens, but a phone or a tablet can also open up a world of positive engagement for kids who are curious about what they see outside or want to learn about maps and explore new areas of their local parks. Find more ideas for integrating technology into kids’ nature time in positive ways here.