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Unplugging is necessary for making healthy connections

One of the most compelling things about the work we do at Durango Nature Studies is making connections.

Our explicit goal is to connect people of every age to the wonders of the natural world, with the aim to inspire a positive connection and an enduring love and appreciation for nature. We frequently realize that a secondary benefit is connecting people to each other. Students in our education or after-school programs get a chance to work together – whether it’s on a science experiment during our education programs or building forts or playing games at our after-school programs or nature camps. Additionally, our staff and volunteers of all ages get a chance to interact with students, providing an intergenerational connection. Not only do students learn from the adults, but the adults also learn from the students.

The longer I’m at DNS, the more I realize just how important our mission is. As our world has become more polarized, finding common ground has become critical. What better place than the natural world to find a way to connect us? Physiologically, we are wired for connection to not only each other, but also to the natural world. There’s a tremendous amount of research on the benefits of these connections.

Common Sense Media issued a report at the end of October on social media use among teenagers and tweens (ages 8 to 12). The report was a national study of 1,677 youths between the ages of 8 and 18. By age 8, one out of every five kids has a smartphone. More than one-half of 11-year-olds have smartphones and more than 90% of 18-year-olds have smartphones.

Perhaps even more starkly, tweens spend an average of 4¾ hours on their devices each day, and teenagers spend almost 7 ½ hours per day on their devices. Children from lower-income families spend up to two more hours each day on their devices. These statistics do not include time spent using technology for schoolwork. The increased use of personal devices has resulted in decreases in reading for pleasure or watching television – which often served as time for the whole family.

The results of the Common Sense Media survey parallels another study conducted in 2015-16 of more than 12,000 Americans that aimed to gain a sense of people’s relationship with nature. This study – the Nature of Americans – showed that clearly people of all ages – even tweeners – recognize the benefits of connecting with the natural world, but technology continues to consume more and more of our days.

Durango bucks these trends to some extent because of the easy access to so much natural space; however, we’re not immune to the challenges of technology obsession among our youths. Friends in the medical world talk about the significant number of children who feel disconnected from others – a trend that has grown substantially over the past few years, and anecdotally, I hear parents frequently talk about struggles with their children over technology.

Intuitively, we all know that putting our devices down and heading outdoors is beneficial in so many ways. Yet, it can be really hard to do, especially as the daylight hours wane. But once we do, we feel so much better. In the case of our children, they need us to lead by example. So I challenge everyone – myself included – to take time to set the devices down, grab your partner, friend and/or children (and maybe their friends, too) and go outside to simply explore the world around you.

Coincidentally, DNS has an upcoming opportunity to unplug and connect. At 5:30 p.m. Monday, naturalist Mike Bienkowski will lead a full moon hike at the Horse Gulch Trailhead. We hope you join us. I guarantee you’ll feel better for it.

Stephanie Weber is executive director of Durango Nature Studies. Reach her at stephanie@durangonaturestudies.org.