Rescuing Ourselves — and Our Kids — From a Pandemic of Screen Time: Get Outside

February 1, 2021

An epidemic of excessive screen time is harming children — and adults — already struggling with the emotional, economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We can’t blame ourselves. We were told to stay home to save lives. After-school activities were cancelled. Gyms were closed. Playdates were banned. Play structures were taped off. Everything went online. Our devices became a way for people of all ages to work, learn, connect and shut the stress of the world out.

As the weather warmed and public health officials told us we could safely go for socially distanced walks, people started flocking to parks. Stores sold out of bikes. Campsites in southern Manitoba were fully booked on weekends. 

But even with all those efforts to get outside, parents were still concerned that their children are transitioning to, as a recent New York Times article put it, “an all-consuming digital life”.

How Bad is It?

Here are some troubling pandemic-related stats from ParticipACTION’s 2020 report card

  • Only 4.8 per cent of children (ages 5-11) and 0.8 per cent of youth (ages 12-17) were meeting 24-hour movement behaviour guidelines during COVID-19 restrictions, compared to 15 per cent (5-17 years) prior to the pandemic.
  • Sixty-two per cent of kids and teens were being less physically active outdoors.
  • Seventy-nine per cent of kids and teens were spending more leisure time on screens.

There’s an Easy Fix: Make Time for Nature

While the world has come together to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, we have inadvertently amplified nature-deficit disorder in youth. Thankfully, many experts believe that society’s nature-deficit disorder can be reversed.

When children are exposed to nature, even in simple ways or in small increments, intrigue and interest soon follow. The best way to encourage a bond with nature is to set an example yourself. When parents rediscover their sense of wonder, so do most kids.

Staying Safe, At Home and In Nature

CPAWS Manitoba developed a series of programs to help Manitobans connect with nature from a safe social distance. 

We expanded our efforts to connect Manitoba to nature by launching the Outdoor Learning Program in August 2020. 

The purpose of the program is to connect people to nature by teaching Manitobans about the value and beauty of our boreal forest and its wildlife. It was designed to be delivered by educators, parents or CPAWS staff and volunteers in order to accommodate pandemic-related restrictions on social gatherings.

We developed a vast online resource hub that included lesson plans designed to integrate with Manitoba curriculum outcomes for grades 7, 10 and 12. 

Activities include nature photography, conducting citizen science research, observing and identifying species using technology and environmental monitoring equipment. 

We also launched an online Facebook community — Outdoor Learning Manitoba — as a space for parents and educators to share resources, opportunities, and experiences to help one another establish deeper connections with nature and improve environmental sustainability across our province.

We developed a popular monthly speaker series — Connecting for Conservation — to discuss topics like the campaign to Defend Manitoba Parks, Paddling Past Polar Bears in the Seal River Watershed and Warming Up To Winter.

We also launched a Safe at Home Lunch and Learn program and will be offering outdoor interpretive programming once limits on group size restrictions are lifted. 

Outdoor activities are a safe and healthy way to make meaningful change in young people’s lives right now. Participating in the Outdoor Learning Program is a step in the right direction for establishing a long-lasting connection between youth and nature. The future of our planet depends on empowering the generation of today to be passionate stewards for our environment.

Need more inspiration? See this article by Richard Louv on 10 nature activities to get your family through the pandemic.

The term Nature-Deficit Disorder was introduced in 2005 by Richard Louv with the publication of his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The term was used to describe the implications associated with wide-spread detachment between youth and nature over the last few decades. 

There are a number of reasons for this disconnect, the most prominent being urbanization, technology and parental fears:

  • Poor urban planning has resulted in limited access to green spaces in urban centres and less walkable communities.
  • Screen time has become a wide-spread concern, with youth racking upwards of 1,200+ hours of screen time per year.
  • Social media is ever-present in our daily lives, which has magnified fear over letting children spend time outdoors (risk of injury, “stranger danger,” etc.). 

Since 2005, there has been an expanding collection of scientific evidence suggesting that nature-deficit disorder contributes to ill effects in youth. This includes a diminished use of the senses, poor concentration, physical inactivity and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses, including anxiety and obesity. Research also suggests that the nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and environmental stewardship. This is cause for concern in a time when climate action is needed more than ever before.

CPAWS Manitoba hosted a panel event on Nature-Deficit Disorder in 2019, and when asked the question, “As parents and mentors, what can we do to foster a young person’s relationship to the natural world?”, Ruth Lindsay-Armstrong, an early childhood educator, said, “Reflect”.

One of the most powerful actions for older generations to do for young people today is reflect on the experiences of nature that we were afforded as young people and how they shaped our relationship to the natural world and our sense of self-reliance. This reflection can guide us in creating similarly formative opportunities and experiences for children today. It’s those experiences that help build children into compassionate adults with the tools to appreciate and steward the landscapes they have grown to be a part of. 

As Richard Louv himself said in an interview, “People seldom look back on their childhoods and recall the best day they ever spent watching TV.”

Help Keep Manitoba Wild


CPAWS Manitoba has helped establish 23 parks and protected areas thanks to people like you.

With your help, we can protect half our lands and waters for future generations of people and wildlife.