by Denny Olson

I love the woods, the changing rivers, the vistas from above tree-line, and of course, the birds that are always there — everywhere. I can’t begin to count the ways that the outdoors has contributed to my general well-being. But my work as a conservation educator isn’t always driven by all those positives. We in my profession have fights to fight as well, and a big worrisome cultural trait is all of the time we spend in front of screens, screens and more screens. 

The average American child spends 7.5 hours per day in front of a screen. The average seven-year-old has spent the equivalent of one full year in front of a screen. Fourteen-year-olds have the equivalent higher-order thinking skills that twelve-year-olds had just 30 years ago. People “twitter” their way to “followers” instead of having substantive dialogue. Forty percent of our children are now classified as obese. Screen watching (mostly commercial TV programming, with video games catching up quickly) correlates strongly with poor sleep patterns, increased rates of diabetes, increased heart disease, slower language development, passivity, skyrocketing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, higher addiction rates throughout life, a lack of empathy with other human beings, and an earlier death.

Since 75% of meals are now eaten in front of a screen, natural relationships between appetite and eating are disrupted, and eating is done for a number of other reasons. The communication skills of screen-watchers are stunted because of lack of dialog with other humans. Speech nuance and body language are unfamiliar concepts, and lack of exposure to vocabulary leads to reading and writing literacy problems by the time children start school. Every hour that a toddler spends in front of a screen corresponds to a decrease in classroom engagement later in the schooling years. Even computer and video-based programs specifically designed to accelerate development in babies, have been shown to have exactly the opposite effect. Babies less than 16 months old exposed to “baby Einstein”-type programs have a smaller vocabulary than their read-to-by-a-real-human counterparts. Just the simple use of Facebook, aside from the content therein, can trigger depression. And the content carelessly expressed has caused more than a few suicides by sensitive people.

And if all of the above were not disturbing enough, there is strong evidence that we are abandoning reality for “reality shows”. As of this writing, there are 146 documentary-style reality shows on American television, 160 different talent searches, 58 dating reality shows, 40 lifestyle-change shows, 35 “real police” shows, 82 celebrity-based shows, 28 makeover shows, and 9 fulfill-your-fantasy shows. Of course, these are not  reality shows at all, but concocted shows with people carefully selected for their divergence from reality. The net effect, of course, is to get the more naive viewers to believe that if they are lucky enough, or can act outrageously enough, they will be the next rich and famous. Meanwhile, the driving force behind all this passive entertainment are the thousands of ads that pound their sensibilities to a quivering pulp.

I’m fairly sure that some people watch the shows for their own escape from the realities of their working life. But what about those watching whose lack of critical thinking skills assure that they don’t have a “grain of salt” to spare? What about young children, in whom critical thinking skills have yet to begin developing?

Busy parents and mentors are extremely careful about who will care for their child in a day-care setting, but planting them in front of screen productions as a substitute care-giver brings to mind the inevitable comparison. Would you take your child to a “day care” whose entire reason for existing is to addict them to advertisements of products every twelve minutes, all day long, every day of the week?

I have a suggested solution. Get them outdoors, as much as is possible, where “reality” is actually real.