Screen time vs. nature connectedness for mental health: Is the internet (the world wide web) a poor imitation of the ‘wood wide web’?

Blackbury Camp, nr. Branscombe. Credit: Mr Eugene Birchall, geograph.org.uk

Why do we spend so much time on the internet (and computer games) when there is a ‘wood wide web’ of nature to tap into that brings enormous benefits for our mental health and wellbeing, as well as for biodiversity and combating climate change? What are the effects of this giant experiment of practically unlimited use of screens on our physical and mental health? And how can we better explore the benefits of nature for mental health?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year the focus of the week is nature (see a report on the benefits of nature connection and spending time in nature on our mental health compiled especially for Mental Health Awareness Week here. See also WWF UK’s suggestions on ways to connect with nature to help your mental health).

On hearing about Mental Health Awareness Week I am struck by the contrast between the time I would like to be spending outside in nature compared to the time I actually spend outside every day, and conversely the time I am on screens and the internet. Undoubtedly like billions of others globally, I now rely on the internet and screens for my livelihood, for communicating with colleagues and friends, for learning and professional development, for my kids’ homework and for a range of administrative tasks as well as some of my leisure time (the occasional TV series). This level of screen time has of course been hugely accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic – with the challenges of home working, online home schooling and most of my own and my kids’ communication with friends shifting online. (I wrote in a previous blog post about some of the other negative effects of the pandemic on mental health and the questions this raises, especially for those experiencing loss of income or housing, extreme isolation, ill health, lack of access to green space, or other difficult circumstances.)

And of course, using screens and the internet has its advantages. The pandemic has normalised online meetings in a way that means I have been able to communicate easily with project partner colleagues in the UK, France and Brazil. I have also ‘Zoomed’ extended family in other countries (including South Africa and Canada) that I may not have made as much effort to get in touch with so regularly otherwise. I was even able to ‘attend’ the funeral of a relative in South Africa who we sadly lost to Covid-19 a few months back.

Apart from the internet as my main window into the world, I, like many, have been living in an enforced isolated bubble. This has involved working at home for long periods, and during lockdown generally only going out for exercise. I feel like I have been grounded to some extent since I first had children – in both the positive sense (feeling a greater sense of place and belonging) and the negative (like a naughty teenager not allowed out). But these feelings have been enormously heightened during the pandemic. For example, I have disliked feeling that I can’t do very much to help (beyond delivering some prescriptions locally and contributing to local food banks). This has been hard for someone who previously worked in international development and is motivated by ‘making a difference’ (but much harder for others in more tricky circumstances).

I’m hugely better informed because of the internet – for my work, on current affairs and keeping up to date with friends and family. I enjoy reading the news, but have learned during the pandemic that I need to limit how often and when I check the news headlines, as it can often lead to paralysing feelings of shock. During the last couple of weeks, I have learned about the unfolding news about the dire oxygen shortage and Covid-19 situation in India. (I was able to then use the internet to try to make a contribution to doing something more practical to help.) I also read that UK aid cuts have hit vital coronavirus research around the world, including on Covid-19 variants in India, which I struggle to reconcile with the scale of this current crisis. I feel incredibly grateful for living where I do in a semi-rural area of the UK where the prevalence has been relatively low, and where even for my age group, we are starting to get access to the Covid-19 vaccine. There is no immediate prospect for this for project partners in Brazil, or for my extended family in South Africa.

My kids, since lockdown, spend far too much time on screens, particularly playing Minecraft with their friends. I never thought I would say that. When they were younger, they were kept away from screens as much as possible to the extent that my eldest occasionally complained of getting teased at primary school for being ‘rubbish’ at computer games. But while there is also a vast amount of useful information on the internet, including on the environment and nature, reading or seeing things online is clearly not the same as experiencing them in real life, and can sometimes also lead to misunderstandings.

For example, Minecraft demonstrates (and therefore arguably teaches our kids) a tenuous grip on nature. Apples (in the game) fall from oak trees (honestly, come on Minecraft!). My kids know this isn’t true (we have an apple tree in our garden and, luckily, because we have taught them, they know the difference between an apple tree and an oak tree). But they both sometimes sense check things from Minecraft with me – they ask if things work like that in real life. (Usually the answer is no, or not really.)

Personally, I feel hugely frustrated with the level of my own and my kids’ screen time. And I wonder what effects this giant experiment of practically unlimited use of screens has on our physical and mental health. A systematic review of reviews carried out in 2018 (see here) found that screen time is associated with higher levels of depression, obesity and a lower quality of life. More research is needed on this as the review reports the current evidence to be ambiguous, of inadequate quality, and lacking in some key areas, e.g. particularly on computer and mobile use (as opposed to TV). This review also highlighted a concerning lack of robust evidence for or against modern forms of screen usage among young people. This suggests that the evidence base needs to be strengthened significantly in order to fully understand the possible harm, as well as the potential advantages, of young people using screens.

In addition, there is increasing evidence that screens are addictive and that their use can lead to other behavioural issues (see this useful short article in The Conversation about screen addiction in kids and some tips on what to do about it). It is telling that according to media reports both Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple) and Bill Gates (Microsoft) along with other Silicon Valley parents strictly limited their kids’ screen time and rarely let them play on the tech products they invented, attributed to their knowledge of the addictive design features and qualities of these products.

So, for me, when I can, I try to get away from screens and get outside. When I do find the time to go outside, especially into nature, the stress I have been feeling about work and being confined in lockdown dissipates, whether it is for a walk, run, cycle, sea swim, paddle board, or whatever (I’ve written elsewhere about the health and wellbeing benefits of spending time and being active in nature – and see also an @ECEHH report here as well as the mental health report listed above). Increasingly I hanker after some time away from all digital devices, like we used to do more often – to a remote area, bunkhouse, or bothy (in Scotland). And it seems I’m not the only one. I heard at a recent webinar by the University of Greenwich (@GreTRC) that ‘digital detox holidays’ (as well as ‘forest bathing‘) are becoming increasingly popular.

The mental health and wellbeing benefits of visiting outdoor green spaces are well documented and include a reduction in stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression, greater feelings of positivity, and of nature connectedness (see e.g. the Finding Nature blog). Spending time with others outdoors also promotes greater opportunities for social contact, which has been particularly important during the pandemic, and which can bring other synergistic mental health and wellbeing benefits. Lockdown has emphasised the importance of our green and blue spaces for mental (and physical) health more than ever. 43% of adults responding to Natural England’s People and Nature Survey in March 2021 said that visiting green and natural spaces has been even more important to their wellbeing since coronavirus. And 45% of respondents in a recent survey for the Mental Health Awareness Week report said visiting green spaces such as parks helped them to cope during the pandemic.

GPs can now prescribe participation in selected group activities outdoors for mental health – termed social (or green) prescribing. Social prescribing combined with community-based support enables GPs, other health practitioners and local agencies to refer people to a link worker who gives people time and focuses on what matters to the individual. For some people this will be green social prescribing, which links them to nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects. This is growing in importance for tackling and preventing mental health, especially because of the range of effects of the pandemic and lockdowns on our wellbeing (see info about a new multi-partner research consortium here; the University of Plymouth’s (@Peninsula_ARC) social prescribing research programme here; and an example of a wetlands project aimed at improving mental health reported in the Guardian here).

Last weekend we went to see the bluebells flowering on Blackbury Camp – an iron age hill-fort near Branscombe (see initial photo). This was one of the wettest outings we have ever been on, which is saying something, given that we lived on the west coast of Scotland for a couple of years. But despite my kids complaining about the weather and asking when we could go home, Blackbury Camp was a beautiful place to be, not just because of the bluebells (which are spectacular) and the archaeology, but also because of the network of trees now growing on the fort. (For me these are reminiscent of Woodbury Castle, a local hillfort within cycling distance of my home, which I wrote about in a previous post.)

Elm leaves unfolding (concertina style). Credit: C. Petersen

I have recently developed an increasing curiosity about trees – e.g. I’ve noticed them more flowering (and unfurling) in spring when out and about after lockdown this year. But I’m also more curious after reading about Suzanne Simard and her team’s amazing and now well-established research about the ‘wood wide web (see a short New Scientist article here and original full scientific article in Nature here). Their work demonstrates that trees create an interconnected ecosystem in symbiosis with the surrounding fungi, forming a network which feeds, nurtures and supports the trees, the biodiversity and by association the wildlife around them. The mycorrhizal networks of different associated fungi are crucial to the extraction from and moving around of resources between the trees and surrounding vegetation.

Her more recent work highlights the role of the ‘mother trees‘ – the bigger, older and more mature trees – in maintaining the health of the entire forest ecosystem (see also a related Guardian article) . Her ideas have now been widely publicised, and influenced the design of the fictitious natural world that provided the backdrop for the film Avatar (and she is also reported to have been consulted regarding the sequel). Simard and her team’s research shows that the wood wide web in some ways resembles a brain (a neural network) – it involves collaboration and communication of information throughout the entire forest, and trees recognise their offspring and nurture them. In addition, lessons learned from the trees’ past experiences (as well as key resources for survival) can be transmitted from old trees to young ones, including in times of stress or difficult conditions (e.g. protecting saplings from frost or very hot, dry weather). Mother trees also play a key role in the regeneration of damaged woodlands and ecosystems. The team’s experimental research has shown that the more mother trees that are left when a group of trees are cut down, the more diverse and abundant the natural regeneration proves to be.

Their work is hugely important, showing that trees play a vital role in maintaining and regenerating whole ecosystems, as well as playing a key role in combating the global climate crisis and biodiversity loss. In addition, it demonstrates that the way trees are harvested has enormous implications. Crucially, it also shows that much greater protection should be placed on our remaining forests, as well as increased efforts to plant trees and promote forest regeneration. Research reported recently in Nature also shows that nature-based solutions that manage and restore ecosystems can play a powerful role in limiting temperature rise, in mitigating effects of climate change, and combating loss of biodiversity.

A friend reminded me about a news story on the high speed rail line HS2 which questioned the process of transplanting (translocating) ancient woodland (by moving some of the soil) – and the extremely doubtful ecological basis for this succeeding. This has never been attempted before, let alone been proven to work. In the light of Suzanne Simard’s work on mother trees and interconnected ecological networks, its success seems even more unlikely.

On reflection, it seems like the internet is a very poor imitation of the wood wide web. So I try to work out ways of spending more time in woodlands and nature, and less time on screens.

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