When Outside Put Down Your SmartphoneJan 17, 2023
In the 1980 movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, a member of the San Bushmen hunter-gatherer tribe stumbles across a Coke bottle that was tossed out the window of a small plane. He takes it back to his village where it immediately garners everyone’s attention; at first villagers simply marvel at its appearance, but quickly they discover its utility not only as a container for liquids but also as a tool with many other functions (e.g. using the base as a hammer). However, the bottle eventually becomes a point of contention as everyone demands its use and intense arguments ensue. Xi, the Bushmen who found the bottle, finally decides it’s causing more trouble that than it’s worth, and to rid the tribe of the problem for good he throws it off the edge of the world (a high cliff).
In a similar vein, when smartphones first appeared over a decade ago we were awed at the capabilities available right at at our fingertips. Previously you could you make calls and send/receive text messages, but now you could read articles and access webpages, take photos/videos, and many other incredible features that applications offered. Over time these became even more powerful, allowing the user to engage in commerce and perhaps most impactful, the ability to interact with friends, family, and even strangers instantly via social media. For the nature lover, many useful tools were created such as the ability to identify plants, birds/calls, animals tracks, and more.
While many of these features are incredibly valuable from a learning perspective, like the San Bushmens’ experience with the bottle, there can be big downsides to improper or overuse of smartphones. In addition to the the chaos and conflict that we often hear about with regards to social media, dependence on smartphones while in nature can be a major distraction and actually lessen our learning, and perhaps more importantly, the enjoyment and relaxation that we crave from being in a natural setting.
Why is this so? Because when we are looking at a device in our hands, we are not present or aware of what is going on around us. Our attention is fractured, and we will likely miss out on most things happenings around us like a moving animal, a bird making an alarm call, or some other visible aspect like a nest, rare plant, beautiful view, etc. Even if we see or hear some of these these things, our mind will be partially elsewhere, and hence we won’t have the full, rich experience that we deserve. In a sense, we are robbing ourselves the very reason we went outside in the first place.
So my advice is that when you go outside, put away the smartphone. Whether you are going for a walk in the local park, a long hike on a wilderness trail, or just to sit on your back porch to take a break from your hectic schedule, resist the temptation to access it. If possible, leave your device inside the house or if you must have it with you for work or family reasons, keep it in your pocket throughout the duration of your time in nature. Simply put, the less you use your smartphone, the more you will get out of your time outdoors.
If you have a legitimate need/reason to access your device, try following these guidelines:
If you must have it with you for emergency contact reasons, place it on silent/vibrate or do not disturb mode.
If you want to access it for educational purposes (like identifying plants), set ground rules. For example, if you are going on a walk for 45 minutes plan on using the device for the first 15 minutes or so, and then putting it away the remainder of your walk.
If you need/want to access it for taking a photo, making a recording, etc. then do so quickly and then put it away again (you can analyze it later). Try to limit the frequency you do this as it always takes time for the mind to settle down and for you to regain your awareness of your surroundings.
If you are out for an extended period of time (an hour or more) and need to check in, plan on taking a set break of 5-10 minutes to do what you need to on your device, and then put it away again. Extended periods of uninterrupted time are always preferred.
Finally, remind yourself each time you head outside that you’ll connect more with nature when you disconnect from the distractions that your smartphone provides. Use ‘Airplane Mode’ as your “Connect-With-Nature Mode.’ You won’t regret it!