A Nation of Screen Addicts

Video games have replaced outdoor games for most American kids.© Getty Images

According to researchers from the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Environmental Leadership Program (ELP), Americans strongly prefer screen time to nature. A new report by the group, released last week, details how Americans engage in 20 percent less outdoor activities than in the 1980s. The group came to the conclusion by tracking national and state park admissions, game licenses, hiking permits and surveys of leisure activities over the past seven decades.

"The average person in America used to go to the national parks every year," ELP’s Patricia Zaradic told reporters. "It was the iconic American family vacation. Now, there are less people doing that." Zaradic’s prior research linked a marked drop in U.S. national park admissions to the increase in popularity of electronic diversions such as watching television, surfing the Internet and playing video games.

"There’s a real and fundamental shift away from nature, certainly here in the U.S., and possibly in other countries," says Oliver Pergams, a University of Illinois researcher who helped Zaradic carry out the study, funded in part by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. They also looked at national park admissions in Japan and Spain and found similar drops in visitation. Overall, the report concludes that nature recreation across all three countries has fallen by 18 to 25 percent on a per capita basis, depending on the type of outdoor activity. The only activity studied that was on the rise in terms of popularity was day-hiking, with everything else—fishing, backpacking, hunting—showing steep declines.

The study authors are worried that increasing "videophilia"—defined as love of the screen—is a big problem. "The replacement of vigorous outdoor activities by sedentary, indoor videophilia has far-reaching consequences for physical and mental health, especially in children," says Pergams. "Videophilia has been shown to be a cause of obesity, lack of socialization, attention disorders and poor academic performance." He also warned that declining nature participation could lead to a reduction in the value people place on conserving both land and biodiversity.

Sources: The Nature Conservancy; MSNBC; Environmental Leadership Program