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Smartphone technology and nature connection

smart phone nature connectedness

Dr Miles Richardson is an expert in nature connectedness. In this article, he discusses the findings of recently published research into the relationship between smartphones and people’s connection with nature…

The UK is a ‘smartphone society’ with 68% of adults owning a smartphone. Excessive use can give rise to social, behavioural and affective problems – 10% of British adolescents have been reported to exhibit problematic levels of smartphone use. It is seen as a potential behavioural addiction.

Technology and smartphones are often cited as causes of the growing human disconnection with nature. Surprisingly, there is little direct research evidence. So, we set out to examine the relationship between smartphone use and nature connection. This research into nature connection and smartphone use has recently been published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions.

smart phone nature connectedness

The study included a modified diagnostic scale to identify problem smartphone use (e.g. I have made unsuccessful attempts to control my smartphone use), a measure of connection with nature (NR6), an anxiety inventory and some general questions about phone usage. 244 people with a mean age of 30 took part.

The results showed that higher smartphone use was positively related to higher anxiety, time spent on phone, and number of selfies taken. Nature connectedness was positively related to age and nature pictures taken per week, and negatively related to selfie-taking and smartphone usage times. Problematic smartphone use was negatively associated with nature connectedness, with selfie-taking and phone use emerging as predictors of decreased connection with nature.

A threshold analysis showed that a level of smartphone use that users may perceive as non-problematic was a significant cut-off in terms of its relationship to levels of nature connectedness beneficial for mental wellbeing. That is, a below 25th percentile smartphone use score predicted 75th percentile nature connection.

We also compared 68 people with higher scores (top 25%) for a connection with nature, with 66 scoring lowest (bottom 25%). Those who were more connected with nature:

  • Had significantly lower problem phone use scores (19.9 v 23.6), using their phones half as much each day (2hr 9min v 3hr 40min).
  • Took 90% fewer selfies – 1 a week compared to 10.
  • Took 300% more pictures of nature – 8 a week compared to 2.6.
  • Were significantly more agreeable, conscientious and open to experience.

A similar analysis based on top 25% smartphone use versus bottom 25% showed that those with higher smartphone use had a significantly lower nature connectedness score. They were also more anxious and took a lot more selfies.

Selfie-taking is a good example of how technology shapes and defines human behaviours. Selfies are seen as a self-presentation tool and reflect people’s personalities and ideal self-concept. Perhaps the explanation of the negative relationship of selfies to nature connectedness, lies in increased self-interest and self-admiration, in contrast to traits of openness and conscious self-reflection which are more likely to provide an understanding of a shared place in the natural world and increased connectedness to nature (Richardson & Sheffield, 2015).

These results provide the first data on the relationship between the use of smartphone technology and people’s connectedness with nature. The research does not provide a direction between the links between smartphone use and nature connection. We do not know whether smartphones disconnect, or a connection to nature reduces smartphone dependance. Future research should seek to examine the impact of changes in smartphone use on nature connectedness over time. The results emphasise the important need for longitudinal research to understand how people’s combined relationship with technology and nature is progressing.

smart phone nature connectedness

Technological advances have seen people settle, farm and then leave villages for an industrial life in urban environments. In an analysis of works of popular culture throughout the twentieth-century, Kesebir and Kesebir (2017) identified a cultural shift away from nature with a sharp decline in nature references from the 1950s through to 2000. Noticeable dips in nature references occurred alongside the dawns of new technology (television in the 1950s and video games in the 1980s). The widespread use of smartphones may be another new dawn of further disconnection, potentially accelerated by uses such as social media, which reflect and ultimately shape culture itself. Similarly, as references to nature have declined, individualistic words have increased in popular culture, songs are now more likely to refer to ‘me’ than ‘you’.

However, connecting people with nature cannot be about demonising technology, or going back to (non-existent) halcyon days. A connectedness with nature must be part of a modern, increasingly urban lifestyle and, therefore, new technology must be embraced in order to engage people with nature. Trees given an email addresses have been bombarded with love letters! So, technology can be used to increase nature connectedness – we found that nature connected smartphone users take pictures of nature, rather than themselves. However, the difficulty is in creating a technological culture that is also more connected to the natural world.

The work suggests nature based interventions could be a route to reduce problematic smartphone use. A potential pathway to smartphone addiction includes maladaptive emotion regulation and nature exposure is known to bring balance to the emotional regulation system. A further pathway to smartphone addiction involves low levels of self-esteem and research has shown nature connectedness is related to more positive self-perception (Swami et. al., 2016).

Combined programmes that decrease smartphone use and re-connect people with nature are therefore recommended for further research. However, this must be done pragmatically within the context of urban and technological living where smartphones cannot be demonised. Rather there is a need to build them into a more balanced and nature connected lifestyle where new technology is also used to engage people with nature.

References: 

  • Richardson, M., Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2018). Problematic smartphone use, nature connectedness, and anxiety. Journal of behavioral addictions, 1-8.
  • Kesebir, S., & Kesebir, P. (2017). A growing disconnection from nature is evident in cultural products. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(2), 258-269.
  • Richardson, M., & Sheffield, D. (2015). Reflective self-attention: A more stable predictor of connection to nature than mindful attention. Ecopsychology, 7(3), 166-175.
  • Swami, V., von Nordheim, L., & Barron, D. (2016). Self-esteem mediates the relationship between connectedness to nature and body appreciation in women, but not men. Body Image, 16, 41-44.

About the Author:  Dr Miles Richardson is a chartered psychologist and expert in nature connectedness at the University of Derby. He founded the first research group with a direct focus on understanding nature connection and its benefits – the Nature Connections Research Group. The group has pioneered the first everyday interventions to bring about sustained increases in connection with nature and wellbeing. Miles works with a number of national conservation NGOs to research nature connection. This has involved application of the pathways to nature connection to inform public engagement work of the National Trust, research into children’s nature connection, well-being and conservation behaviours for the RSPB, and informing and evaluating the successful ’30 Days Wild’ campaign with The Wildlife Trust – improving nature connection and happiness for nearly 100,000 people. Miles also leads a work package on the £1.3 million Improving Well-being through Urban Nature project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. You can find Miles’ blog here.

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