Teenagers feel less connected to nature than children and adults, study finds

Cover photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie, flickr.com

Reference: Hughes, J., Rogerson, M., Barton, J., & Bragg, R. (2019). Age and connection to nature: when is engagement critical? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2035


Teenagers tend to show lower levels of connection to nature than children and adults, according to a recent study of over two thousand people in the United Kingdom. 

I will admit that when I first read these results I was not entirely surprised. I spent my childhood playing outside in neighborhood parks and playgrounds, and there were always adults around walking their dogs or sitting on benches in the park. Teenagers were noticeably absent, probably in part because these spaces often weren’t designed with teenagers in mind. In fact, many community parks have systems in place to actively discourage teens from using the park. 

A small box affixed to a building. The box is a speaker
Speakers like this one on the wall of a 7-eleven in Philidelphia can be used to deter youth from loitering outside. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Take, for instance, the mosquito, a small speaker installed in 30 parks and recreation centers throughout Philadelphia to decrease loitering and vandalism. The speaker plays a constant high pitched noise all night long, using a frequency so high that only teenagers can hear it. Systems from the same manufacturer have been installed by roughly 20 different parks departments around the United States to stop teenagers from spending time in parks at night. These systems represent one of many diverse factors that could potentially play into creating age-based differences in connection to the environment.

Why does this matter?

Understanding trends about how connected to nature different age groups typically feel is critical because it could potentially help target conservation efforts in the future. If certain groups are losing connection to nature, how can educators or policymakers intervene to counteract that? If there is an age where connection to nature tends to increase, how can conservationists reinforce that trend? 

In this study, researchers in the UK worked to get a baseline level of knowledge about age-related trends in people’s level of connection to the environment. This knowledge can then be applied in the future to enhance conservation education and outreach.

What’s your score?

So how do you go about assessing the extent to which people feel connected to the environment? Well, it turns out a number of researchers have worked on this in the past, and they have come up with two main tests. The first is called the Connection to Nature Index (CNI), and it includes 16 questions divided between four categories: enjoyment of nature, empathy for creatures, sense of oneness, and sense of responsibility. 

The second test is called the Nature-Relatedness scale (NR-6) and it only uses six questions. If you are interested, you can try taking the test yourself online and see what score you get.

Both questionnaires ask participants to rate the extent to which they agree or disagree with statements about their connection to nature using a five-point scale, and they both yield a score between one and five, with five being the most connected to nature. The CNI was developed primarily for use with children, while the NR-6 was developed for adults. This study applied both tests for all age groups to compare trends between the two different systems of assessment.

In this study, researchers used in-person interviews in grocery stores, classrooms, and outdoor sites, as well as online surveys. They ultimately reached over 2,000 people from around the UK. The majority of the participants were adults, but the team also managed to survey around 170 teens and 140 children for the study. 

Digging into the data

Results of the two different tests were remarkably consistent. Both tests showed that young children have very high levels of connectedness to nature, which then quickly decrease to a minimum at about 15 years old. Connectedness to nature then increases throughout the late teens and the rest of adulthood. Interestingly, women tended to have higher scores than men across all age groups. 

These trends could result from many different processes. For one, it is possible that social factors like the design of community parks or school field trips for kids could create structural incentives that encourage certain groups to spend more time outside than others. It is also possible that people have innate or learned differences in their desire to connect with nature based upon their age group or gender. 

Because this study looked at the current distribution of scores rather than tracking specific people through time, these trends may also be due to the historical context of when people grew up. The number of times people use the word “nature” in literature has decreased since the 1800s, perhaps indicating a general societal decrease in connection to nature over time. If people’s beliefs remain relatively consistent over time, older people would, therefore, be more likely to have a stronger connection to nature just based on the historical context in which they grew up. 

A graph of use of the word nature in books over time. The ward has appeared less and less over the past 200 years
The use of the word “nature” in literature has decreased since the 1800s, as illustrated by this figure from the Google n-gram viewer

The fact that women showed a higher level of connectedness to nature across all age groups is consistent with previous studies that have shown women generally tend to have higher levels of pro-environmental behavior and attitudes than men.

Moving forward

These results are potentially impactful for conservationists who need to figure out how to best engage everyone in their community. Numerous studies have shown that childhood experiences can play an important role in determining a person’s appreciation for the natural environment as an adult, but these results indicate that teenagers could potentially benefit from increased opportunities to connect with nature and that adults may continue to grow in their connectedness to nature with age.

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Abigail Lewis

I am a Ph.D. student studying freshwater ecology and biogeochemistry at Virginia Tech. Whenever possible, I enjoy thinking and writing about the role of science in society, including community-based science, science communication, and science for the public good. In between rehearsals, hikes, and long dinners I am working to build a career that will address environmental issues and build a more inclusive scientific community. Twitter: @lewis_lakes

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