A fast train is coming, and it’s headed for this generation of children, and the next.
Multi-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder of Facebook, wants to launch an under-13 social networking service. This past week, Headline News Network’s asked me to write my own commentary about this, on HLN’s Web site. You can read it here.
I’d like to elaborate a bit here, both on the growing encroachment of electronics and about one way to counter the trend — not by trashing technology, but by offering a balance to it; not by just saying no, but by saying yes to a nature-rich life for our kids and ourselves.
Not long after the Facebook announcement, Lauren Ashburn, in a disturbing article for the The Daily Beast, asked the right question: “In the age of online child porn, cyber-bullying, and privacy violations, do we really need our children on Facebook, even if it’s linked to an adult’s membership?”
She and others also took on the complicity of parents. Some 5.6 million children under the age of 13 are already on the social networking site, according to Consumer Reports, and over a third of their parents know it. Many of these helped their children join Facebook — which required faking their kid’s age.
There’s a fascinating mirroring going on here, between virtual life and the physical world.
Ashburn pointed to one study that shows that “poorer children, who are falling behind in school, spend an average of 90 minutes more each day than their affluent counterparts playing games with devices their families bought but can’t really afford, like the Xbox, Wii, and iPad.”
Now consider a recent USDA Forest Service survey using aerial photography, which found that tree cover in 17 of the 20 analyzed cities had “statistically significant declines in tree cover,” at a rate of about 4 million trees per year. Particularly in urban neighborhoods, technology grows as trees shrink.
In contrast to this gloomy news, we’re happy to report that the children and nature movement is growing.
We’re seeing impressive progress by such organizations as the National Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics has intensified its efforts to get children outdoors. And such companies as REI, The North Face, Disney and CLIF Bar are stepping up their engagement.
C&NN is striding ahead, too, as reflected in the results of The Children & Nature Network 2011 Grassroots Leadership Survey, an independent survey commissioned by C&NN with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The survey focused on efforts associated with C&NN: the regional, statewide and provincial campaigns to connect children, families and communities to nature. Among the results reported:
• The number of children and youth getting outdoors in nature, as a result of the efforts of the Network and its members, has tripled – from 1 million in 2009 to 3 million in 2012. (As of this month, there are more than 100 affiliated campaigns and more than 100 nature clubs for families in more than 40 states.)
• Survey participants reported increased awareness of the importance of nature for children’s healthy development, more participation by pediatricians, growing community support, and more development of places to play and learn outdoors in nature. And more underserved youth were engaged in outdoor nature-based experiences during 2011.
Here’s more good news. C&NN’s second annual Let’s G.O.! (Get Outside) initiative was held throughout the month of April in 2012. There were more than 600 Let’s G.O.! events held in 50 states, with more than 300,000 participants — an almost 200 percent increase in participants from the more than 100,000 participants in 2011.
We’re deeply impressed by the extraordinary efforts of so many people and organizations. In fact, it would be easy for the children and nature movement to rest on its laurels. But we can’t. Not for a second.
The barriers to independent play and time spent in nature remain: Fear of strangers and of nature itself; poor urban design; ever more people living in cities. And one challenge is growing at a particularly alarming pace: the reduction of “educational enrichment” in favor of frenetic overscheduling and technology.
Too many parents and schools are determined to eliminate free time and independent play. A few weeks ago, while traveling in the Midwest, I learned of a chain of independent schools that requires preschoolers — preschoolers — to spend three hours a day doing deskwork.
In education, new national standards will be helpful, but in other ways education reform could turn regressive. Recent reports suggest the arrival of “stealth assessment” — nonstop electronic monitoring of students, similar to the systems that grocery stores now use to track inventory. Also, we see an increasing dependence on cutting-edge classroom software, much of it in the form of video games. (This is occurring at the same time that environmental education faces draconian federal budget cuts.)
Technology isn’t going away, and social networking can be a force for good. But we need a new balance. The more high tech our children’s lives become, the more they need nature. Such balance won’t happen without your help.
That train is still coming, fueled by unimaginable wealth and technical sophistication, as well as blind faith. We must move faster.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.” and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”