Videophilia’ is a word you’ve not likely heard before, but chances are, you know what it means. Whenever a teenager goes online and surfs the Internet, a toddler watches a Baby Einstein video or a group of tweens go to the movies, videophilia is in effect.
And while there’s no denying electronic media drives society and shapes the way we live, there is mounting evidence that suggests that our increased tendencies to use screen-centered technologies might be doing us more harm than we realize.
A couple years ago, Oliver Pergams, a conservation biologist at the University of Illinois Chicago, was trying to explain a downward trend in visits to National Parks through the past 16 years. He had to look no farther than his own home for the answer.
"[We] saw our own kids playing video games, spending time in front of the television," says Pergams, whose study was published last year in the Journal of Environmental Management.
Pergams and co-researcher Patricia Zaradic, of the Stroud Research Center in Avondale, Pa., found that in 2003 the average American spent 327 more hours surfing the Internet, watching movies and playing video games than in 1987.
"As we see increasing videophilia, we can reasonably expect and will see people go into natural areas less," Pergams says. "And as people have less connections with nature, they have fewer reasons to give it importance in their daily lives. There is less reason to conserve it, give it funding."
All of humankind has a stake in re-establishing connections with nature, says Bruce Boyd, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Illinois, which helped fund the UIC study.
"If we raise a generation of kids that have no connections to nature, no concern for nature, what sort of world are they going to leave to their children, what sort of world is it if nature is terribly degraded?" Boyd says.
Boyd says it is up to parents and educators to help kids connect the dots in nature to see the bigger picture.
"It takes some vision ... to make sure kids get out and look at a farm where the vegetables they eat are grown, to see and appreciate how electricity is created by our resources, or to point out that the water in the Great Lakes is our drinking water, so it’s very important to protect our ecosystem," Boyd says.
In addition, more research is finding that connecting with nature has a positive impact on children, says Richard Louv, author of several books about family, nature and community including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder."
"There is research out of the University of Illinois that says with just a little contact with nature, the symptoms of kids with attention deficit disorder get much better," Louv says.
When kids play on grassy green fields instead of asphalt lots they are more likely to invent their own games, which requires them to engage in creative and cognitive thinking skills, he says.
Biologically, humans are still wired for hunting and gathering, Louv says. "There’s something in us that we don’t fully understand, but we need to be immersed in nature from time to time for optimum function."
Boyd agreed. "Children learn and think things they otherwise wouldn’t when they’re engaged in the natural world—to deprive them of that leaves such an enormous gap in a child’s education."
Top among the skills children learned when given unstructured outdoor play time is how to entertain themselves, Boyd says.
"If you have no practice at creative play, and get plunked into a natural area, you won’t have any ideas how to take advantage of that surrounding, so your response is to be bored," Boyd says. "So many kids are used to having entertainment provided to them, they can’t generate their own."
What’s more, nature’s calming effects benefit both kids and adults, Louv says.
"When I was writing this book, my son and I took a fishing trip and usually my son would fish and I would sit in the van and work. But every once in a while, I would get out of the van and fish and I realized on those days I was more productive. It’s the same motivation for kids—when they spend time in nature, they know they’ll feel better, calmer, and be even better at that video game."