FACEBOOK TARGETS CHILDREN and Strikes Another Blow Against Natural Childhood

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

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.

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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.


My Headline News Network commentary.

 Income equality and trees, as seen from space.

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.” 


  1. I agree. How do we do this? How do we get the word out beyond the believers that are already following and part of this stuff? I write about the same issues on my blog. I used to have a semi-decent following and since leaving Facebook it has dropped off to near zero as no one “remembers” to check without the Facebook reminder. Sometimes it is so discouraging to feel that there are those of us out there trying to get this message across, work with schools, talk to neighbors, participate in community groups…but it’s not uniting somehow. The power of corporate-owned media feels nearly infinite. It’s such a difficult task to fight against that machine. I completely agree we have to move faster.

    Have you heard of playborhoods? A new book out –maybe not exactly your style as it sounds like more manufactured playspaces than natural ones, but it comes from the same general idea — getting kids outside in nature even if not in the woods (which I’d still advocate for), limiting the use of technology, getting out of the rat race of overscheduling and overtesting.

    I just think we have to find a way to all combine, Lenore Skenazy (free-range kids)…C&NN, all of us…the slow movement, simple living types…to get a strong enough resistance movement going.

    • Richard Louv

      Thanks much, Rachel. Yes, I’m a fan of Playborhoods — and endorsed the book. And I agree we need even more collaboration among the organizations concerned about disappearing independent play and the nature deficit.

  2. I have just read Teacher Tom’s blog who is “in favor of a Technology curriculum that was a broad investigation of technology, one that gave children hands-on practice using a wide variety of developmentally appropriate tools, machines and systems to solve problems, but no one needs 13 years of computer training” and I really advocate what both you and him are saying. I’m a Primary school teacher in an International School in Lisbon, Portugal. I started a Nature Club for Yr 2 (1st Grade) children, and thought that if I had 12 coming regularly it would be an achievement. I have 19 children (mostly boys), who can’t wait till Wednesday afternoon. We minibeast hunt, we make pictures and sculptures from natural materials, we go on nature treasure hunts, find shades of green, learn the colours of the rainbow by making a nature collage, play in the woods, invite experts (an arachnologist!)… and let me tell you – I have NEVER heard, in all my years of teaching, kids get as excited over ICT classes (Information, Communication and Technology (or computer) as they do over The Snapdragons nature club. These days children are born with ‘technology’ in their hands, it’s second nature to them – why are we, in schools, putting young children through computer classes,they are more competent users of modern technology than I am. It’s criminal. The kids in Snapdragons can tell the difference between a male and female spider, identify the birds in the school grounds… how’s that for knowledge – I see their sense of pride and (over) inflated chests when the catch a spider and show an adult and confidently say ‘it’s a female’ – and watch the look of utter surprise on that adult’s face – now that to me is priceless. I sometimes feel I am fighting a losing a battle – my classroom is not full of ‘technology’, but it is full of snails, slugs, mealworms, silkworms and yes, maybe I am ‘mad’, but I also know that my children have had a unique experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives…
    I would also like to add, on a different note – thank you Richard for CN&N – it has been a key factor in my fight for the redevelopment of my school grounds and more enviromental education in my – I have started Project S.E.E.D (school environmental education development) and I have just received 3000Euros form the parent association for redeveloping the school pond area… it’s exciting. And overwhelming!

  3. …And we need to get schools to stop assigning technology-based homework! The kids are immersed in technology at school for most of the day and then come home with homework that is computer-dependent. Trying to strike a balance is becoming increasingly difficult when educators embrace technology with such vigor that it seems as though they have forgotten that children learn best while interacting with others, not with media.

  4. I agree totally. In my work, I am trying to interest kids, as well as adults, in the everyday nature that surrounds us. In the Pacific Northwest, we are lucky to have magnificent natural areas throughout the state, which is great, but In the city of Seattle, where we have outstanding nature parks, I rarely see kids playing. These places should be teeming with kids! I think they are seen as dark and dangerous places, which is completely untrue.

    Some of the local elementary schools are starting to take kids into our urban woods on ‘wilderness’ programs, but it is all so organized and regulated. The parks should be places where kids can go and be kids.

    But, I do think that more people are feeling the need for nature connection in everyday life. I do notice more people out walking in nature, where a few years ago it sometimes seemed like I was the only one!

  5. I don’t know that I agree with Sarah about limiting or eliminating technology-based homework. I use it as a way to save paper, ink, and time. What I think would be better would be to have kids spend less time doing homework (by using technology) and have their homework require some kind of response/journaling/projects based on time spent outdoors. Homework just for the sake of homework is helping no one. But if we change what “homework” means to include requiring unstructured time spent in nature, then think of how much we could hook kids into choosing outdoors over indoors.

  6. While I agree the internet often inhibits the development of children and teens, I’m pleased Facebook are adding this service.

    For those of us with children and/or siblings who utilize social media, their safety and the information they’re exposed to is an ongoing concern. Sexual content and cyber-bullying are 2 immediate concerns.

    If this service offers enhanced protection, and I’m sure Zuck will claim it does, then I’m broadly in favor of it.

  7. Robert Michael Pyle

    Go, Snapdragons! Hooray Christina! Shades of Anna Botsford Comstock, through whose influence such nature-study activities were NORMAL in American schools one hundred years ago. Good for Lisbon, but would the snapdragons even be tolerated in an American school today?

  8. I think we should try to use IT to enhance the children’s outdoor experience wherever possible – because we’re not going to stop them using it. So I show children all the field guide apps I have on my I touch – and explain why they don’t always beat the hard copies so that you need both.
    I run a monthly club for young bird watchers here in Phoenix AZ and we have our own ebird account so we can keep track of our findings and introduce them to Cornell and Audubon. At the moment we are using it to track finding 100 birds for the Arizona centennial. The local Audubon Chapters are sponsoring us so we can buy a set of hard copy field guides.
    One of our young birders (12 years old) writes contributions to our chapter blog. His mother enhances the blog with her bird photos which is a hobby she has taken up since he started blogging. Just back from Australia he’s brimming with ideas so I’ve suggested he makes up a 10 minute power point to show the local chapter.
    Really I think if you want to take kids outdoors you’ve got to take them there, wherever that place might be. Then use the IT to make them feel part of the nature community – a bit like martial arts. Use the strength of your opponent to overcome him.

  9. As a mom who also happens to be a Marriage and Family Therapist, I see the huge need we have for more balance. I see the devastating effects of technology-driven lives in children, couples, families, and even in the families’ pets. Technology can separate us. It can cause us to live in a made-up world where opinions and feelings are disembodied – shared without the context of a real relationship. On the other-hand, if properly managed, technology can be used to bring together like minds who can then plan to meet at the local park, the local hiking trail, etc.

    I see first-hand the healing effects of nature on people with mood disorders, autism, anxiety, PTSD, and a whole host of other emotional challenges. I see the healing effects nature can have on the relationship between a husband and wife or son and father (on relationships in general). Nature seems to be the best place to connect – it forces us to look into each other’s eyes, speak our thoughts and feelings out loud, to work together as we plant gardens, to come to each other’s support when nature unleashes her fury through a storm.

    I hope and pray that more and more humans will return to nature, both for fun and for work. We need more organic farmers and more flower gardens. We need more hiking trails and cleaner beaches. For me, nature is an important part of my spiritual growth. I worship my Creator by looking with awe upon Creator’s creation each and every moment. I hope we will all join together and fight the good fight, put down the game, turn off the computer and walk about freely on the planet. 😉

  10. Richard, I agree that there has to be a balance. I have an article coming out in the July issue of CAEYC (California Association for the Education of Young Children) entitled: Connecting Technology and Nature in the Classroom. As someone who has raised four children, I can attest to difficulty of dissuading kids from overusing technology and persuading them to get outside more. My argument was probably weakened because I grew up on a farm and kids aren’t particularly drawn to the things their parents did. With Bloomers! we follow the: if you can’t beat them join them philosophy of working with our kids. We came up with some really unique and fun ideas to integrate technology and nature. For example, one of the things we did was implement a GPS locator app that let’s kids “check-in” at any botanical garden or arboretum in the U.S. and get 500 points in the online world.

    When I was writing my article, I looked for other nature and game sites that integrate the online – offline worlds, and I could find very little beyond reference sites like trail maps, plant and animal identification sites, etc. I have many more ideas that I need more money to produce, ha, ha. But let’s all get creative! There are a lot of ways we could integrate technology with nature especially with mobile devices and now i-pads and tablets. Plus studies now coming out show how technology can be used to help teach kids with learning disabilities and behavioral problems. And as a bonus it does help save paper as someone already mentioned here. The point I am advocating is that there should indeed be a balance.

  11. The National Wildlife Federation has always and continue to do incredible work in all things wildlife, natural habitats and much more. But recently they lost my (and many others’) trust. They made a deal with the devil. They partnered with Scotts, whose parent company is Monsanto, all in the name of the mighty dollar. It was only the outcry of its many members that caused them to end that partnership. This former member will not trust them until they publically get rid of the all the officers and board members who were in favor of this partenrship.

  12. I don’t know if I agree that there should be a “balance” among technology and nature. I guess I’m unsure about how the way balance is being used. I think a balance implies that the relationship is 50/50 or when you get a lot of one, than you get less of the other. So if you use the computer/watch TV all day, then you should go outside for 15 minutes? Or do you need to be outside all day as well? But wouldn’t you agree you need more nature than screen time, so 15 minutes of screens is equal to a half a day outside? i think talking about “balance” is ambiguous and let’s people off the hook (most of us) to continue our addiction to media. At the same time, i realize that its hard to not ever use it without being totally unconnected to the world – but I’m talking about internet now. I believe kids should never watch TV, period, for as long as possible, their entire childhood. it does nothing for their creativity, etc. And internet doesn’t do much either. Maybe in high school, kids can start to learn typing and so called internet skills. At least then they will have had a natural, playful childhood. The hard fact is that adults have to change in order for kids to change. I think we should all just be telling each other, get off the TV, get off the computer, go outside. We should be talking about internet and TV addiction. A small minority of people may naturally have a “balance” in regards to TV and computer. . . I just don’t know any of them.

    • Richard Louv

      Very good point about the meaning of balance, Angela.

  13. This is interesting. As a dad of two young boys, the too much technology challenge is one that has just seemed to have been dropped on us in the past 5 years. I grew up a certain way – what i think was a good way – with minimal technology and lots of quality/quantity nature experiences. I still live this way because I like to, with the internet and email being my chief form of screen technology. We do not own a smart phone, HDTV, DVR, video game system, or any like that. We share a cell phone (flip). My wife and I are very cognicent of how much screen time our children get. I worry about the implications of how we are raising our boys in this day and age. Will children who don’t grow up with too much technology be ostracized socially or left behind in career aspirations? The book called: The Winter of our Disconnect was very interesting when it came to what we are taking away from our kids and replacing with screens. I highly recommend it!


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