Technology is often cited as a reason for our disconnection from the natural world, but there’s not a great deal of research in this area. Recently smartphone technology has become common and a colleague (Dr Zaheer Hussain) and I have just completed a study looking at phone use and connection with nature.
We had 236 usable responses to the survey which included a modified diagnostic scale to identify problem phone use, a measure of connection with nature (NR6), an anxiety inventory, personality scale, self-esteem scale and some general questions about phone usage.
Firstly, we compared those people with higher scores (top 25%) for a connection with nature, with those scoring higher (top 25%) for problem phone use (e.g. I have lost interest in previous hobbies and entertainment as a result of smartphone use). The analysis can be used to draw a pen-pic of those people who were more connected with nature, they:
- Use their phone significantly less each day (2hr 10min v 4hr 25min,)
- Were significantly less anxious (10.3 v 13.1).
- Had significantly higher self-esteem (19.9 v 15.0).
- Took significantly fewer selfies (1 v 7 per week).
- Took significantly more nature photos (8 versus 3 per week).
- Were significantly more conscientious, emotionally stable and open to experience.
This is a cross-sectional snapshot so we can’t say that more problematic smartphone use causes lower connection with nature, it may be people prone to anxiety, for example, are more likely to develop higher phone use. However, having a greater connection with nature is a broadly positive place to be in comparison – whether that came first or developed.
It’s worth noting what type of questions the NR6 scale, used to measure a connection with nature, asks. It’s about a desire to take holidays in wilderness areas, considering how actions affect the environment, noticing nature, feeling connected to all livings things, a relationship to nature being important and part of one’s spirituality. Pretty deep stuff. It’d be interesting to reframe some of these questions to phones – the relationship with my phone is important to me?
Knowing a little more about the scale, we can also compare those people with higher scores (top 25%) for a connection with nature, with those scoring lowest (bottom 25%). Those who were more connected with nature:
- Had significantly lower problem phone use scores (19.7 v 23.2), using their phones half as much each day (2hr 15min v 4hr 8min).
- Took 87% fewer selfies – 1 a week compared to 8.5.
- Took 320% more pictures of nature – 8 a week compared to 2.
- Were significantly more agreeable, conscientious and open to experience.
Similarly we also compared those people with higher scores (top 25%) for problem phone use, with those scoring lowest (bottom 25%). Those who used their phones more:
- Were 33% and significantly more anxious (13.3 v 10.0).
- Had significantly lower self-esteem (15.2 v 20.1).
- Took 16 times more selfies (5.9 a week compared to 0.3).
- Had a significantly lower connection with nature (3.3 v 3.8).
- Were significantly less agreeable, conscientious, open to experience and emotional stable.
Once again this is a snapshot so we can’t say that more problematic phone use leads to a decreased connection with nature – for example it might be a lower connection with nature and higher anxiety comes before higher phone use – or it could that phone use is a cause. However, there are differences worth further study over time. For example, it’d be interesting to look at measures such as anxiety and nature connection before phone use became problematic and how those measures changed in people who become more dependent on their phones.
However, technology is here to stay, nature connectedness isn’t about going back to some halcyon days where we lived in harmony with nature. It’s about realising our place in a wider ecology here and now. Technology must play a role in that and smartphones are clearly powerful and engaging tools. The study showed that those more connected to their phones had a latent interest in nature through taking photos. Smartphones can foster that latent interest as we showed with our three good things in nature work. Technology needs to be used to help deliver nature into people’s everyday lives, helping them realise their place in the wider natural world.