May 15, 2023
Research has shown that spending time outdoors is good for one's mental health. It not only prompts people to unplug from technology for a little while, but it also reduces their stress and anxiety levels.
Though any time outdoors is better than none at all, a new study suggests that certain types of nature breaks are more beneficial than others. Researchers tracked the smartphone activity of 700 people for two years and found that their phone activity actually increased during visits to city parks and other urban green spaces.
By contrast, when the participants visited nature reserves or forests, their screen time significantly dropped during their first three hours there. The researchers also found that young adults spent twice as much time on their smartphones as being outdoors.
"Greentime, or time outdoors, has long been recommended as a way to restore our attention from the demands of daily life, yet before our study, little was known about whether nature provides a way for people to disconnect from the mobile devices that now follow us into the great outdoors," said Kelton Minor, a research scientist at Columbia University's Data Science Institute.
"While past research suggested that short trips to city parks might provide a digital detox, we saw texting and phone calls actually go up. It was really the longer visits to wilder areas, like forests or nature preserves, that helped people get off their screens and wrest back their attention from their smartphones."
The study is the first to track phone usage by using shared smartphone data. Previous studies have relied on participants to self-report their phone usage.
"Smartphones have an incredibly powerful pull on our attention, which will undoubtedly increase in the future – that's what many technology companies are working on," said co-author Chris Danforth, a fellow at the University of Vermont. "Given the reported connections between mental health and our digital life, we need more studies like this to help establish ways to encourage a healthier relationship with technology."
The uptick in smartphone usage in city parks may be the result of city parks being better at strengthening remote social ties than at restoring a sense of focus, researchers said. For a more impactful digital break, a trip to more remote green spaces may be more effective.
Spikes in smartphone usage have been associated with increases in anxiety, depression and sleep problems, especially in young adults. Time spent in nature, however, has been considered a natural antidote.
The bottom line is that any time spent in the natural world is good for one's mental health. Studies have shown that it improves the ability to focus and pay attention, lowers stress, improves mood and increases one's ability to empathize and cooperate with others. It also helps reduce the risk of developing psychiatric disorders. Green urban spaces near schools have been shown to promote cognitive development in children, and green spaces around public housing units have been found to promote better attention and focus in adults.
Scientists have been investigating whether blue spaces – locations with a river or ocean view – have the same mental health benefits. One study suggests that short, frequent walks along bodies of water are really good for one's mental health.
Another study found the sounds of nature, like birds chirping or waves hitting the beach, can improve a person's cognitive abilities. The sounds of nature were compared to the sounds of traffic or a busy restaurant.
Long trips out to the woods aren't always feasible, but mental health experts say there are plenty of ways to incorporate shorter nature breaks into one's daily or weekly schedules. One way is to combine physical exercise with nature exposure. When running or biking, try using park trails instead of heavily congested city streets. Or simply go for a long walk in the neighborhood, but pay attention to the natural sights and sounds. Taking regular walks has been associated with living longer and better mental health and well-being.
Really crunched on time? Even just gardening or doing jumping jacks in the backyard for 10 minutes can make people feel better both physically and mentally. The most important thing is to get away from the screens and to move as much as possible. A sedentary lifestyle, not only increases the risk of depression, but also the risk of death. Too much sitting has been shown to be as dangerous as obesity or smoking.