From Power-Struggle to Healthy Balance: Ten Tips for Raising Nature-Loving Cyberpunk Kids and Teens

By KJ Martin

It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning. I just received a text from another parent inviting my fourteen-year-old twins outside for a river excursion with some of their friends. Of course, I think it is a fabulous idea. I glance at my daughter’s closed bedroom door before looking at the time on my phone. It’s 11:00 AM. I know she’s awake. I can hear her fingertips tapping away on her laptop keyboard.

Just minutes ago, I watched her brother sail across our tile kitchen floor in his socks to raid the refrigerator, before disappearing back into his bedroom balancing a glass of juice and a plate of waffles. From my perch on a stool at the breakfast bar, I now hear intermittent exclamations of excitement coming from his room, as he greets his online gaming friends. I can already tell they are eagerly planning their next virtual campaign.

My mind starts flipping through my parenting Rolodex of “approach-the-plugged-in-teen” strategies, because I know the treacherous fifteen minutes that lie ahead of me. I’ve been through it many times before and have the battle scars to show for my efforts. I can already hear their reactions to the outdoor invitation. Mommmmm, no! I just want to hang out in my room. I’m tired. Bruh, my friends from South Korea and Pakistan are online.

Sound familiar?

It is a struggle that all of my parenting friends seem to relate to as we strive to raise healthy kids in this modern world. As a research junkie, I find it easy to back up my parenting decisions with data and facts. What is not so easy is getting my hands on actual examples of how parents today are finding real success in creating a world for our kids, where technology and unstructured, inclusive outdoor activities happily coexist.

Why is achieving this balance so important, you ask?

As I look at the rising number of documented health risks, such as depression, anxiety, elevated blood pressure, and social isolation often associated with even a moderate use of weekly screen time for both kids and adults, I must confess that I feel a sense of urgency not just to sign my kids up for outdoor activities but to help instill in them a deep, personal appreciation for the healing value of nature. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a research physician, who studies the effect of both virtual and experiential learning on children, states that “unplugged time outside has been linked to higher test scores, lower anxiety and aggression, more creativity and improved attention spans (Colby, 2019).” This form of research fuels my relentless pursuit of balance between screen time and outdoor time. I believe we need both.

Four years ago, my partner and I moved our family to the outdoorsy, laid-back mountain town of Bend, Oregon. We wanted our kids to grow up with the wilderness on their doorstep. Before we moved, I asked the twins, then ten years old, what concerns they had. Their first concern centered on how the family dog would adjust to a new house and neighborhood. Their second and greatest concern was that the speed of the Internet would be slower in a smaller town. They made it clear to me that slow internet was unacceptable. I believe “game changer” was my son’s exact phrase.

To further demonstrate our generation experience gap, the concern about Internet speed hadn’t even occurred to me. My greatest fear when I had moved towns and schools at their age was making new friends. My twins already have a universal friend hub – online. The verbal exchange further demonstrated to me the extremely high level of significance that kids today place on their online communities. They demand a very high speed of access.

We pride ourselves on being an active family that regularly participates in outdoor adventures and extreme sports. I am a former college athlete with a twenty-five-year career in higher education, and my partner instructs expedition courses for the National Outdoor Leadership School while also teaching for Oregon State University-Cascades in their Tourism, Recreation, and Adventure Leadership degree program. Our twins, by default, spend a lot of their weekends and family vacation time in the mountains hiking, skiing, riding, mountain biking, and backpacking. They also spend time on our local rivers kayaking, sailing, surfing, and paddle boarding.

While this may sound like a dreamy childhood to some, our kids still compare their resources with that of their friends and consistently take stock of one glaring disparity in particular: screen time. In fact, it often becomes a point of family contention. After a family weekend rafting trip was announced, I’ll never forget how my soft-spoken daughter adamantly stomped her foot and declared, “I wish I didn’t live in such an adventurous family!”

Let’s face it. Parenting in the digital age of online education and socialization presents both perks and challenges. Every day, our children and teens are developing necessary online skills which they will need to be successful members of our rapidly changing global society. Online gaming and social media platform interactions provide valuable ways for kids to connect with others and develop a sense of belonging within these cyber communities.

Adults, too, will soon experience big changes in how we interact using online platforms. “Bill Gates recently predicted that remote work meetings will be held in the metaverse within the next three years (Townsend, 2021).” The metaverse is a good example of a virtual and augmented reality, in which people interact with the use of an avatar or alternative identity. Forbes magazine recently published an article stating, “Consumer, tech, entertainment and other companies are looking at (the metaverse) as the next frontier where people can live, work, and socialize together in the virtual world (Kelly, 2021).” The world we interact with today will look much different from the world we will experience in the near future.

As parents, we are all too aware that a high use of screen time comes with a dark side. Just watch and be amazed, as our sweet little darlings turn into gremlins, when we announce that the end of their use of a specific digital device is in sight. A recent report released from the researchers at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found, “On average, children ages 8 – 12 spend 4 – 6 hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend up to 9 hours (Screen Time and Children, 2020).” The report also indicates that too much screen time for teens may lead to physical and mental health issues, including sleep problems, lower grades, mood and weight problems, poor self-image and body image issues, FOMO (fear of missing out), and less time learning other ways to relax and have fun. Younger kids are also facing a deficit of time spent outdoors. “Today, the average kid spends less than seven minutes a day outside in unstructured play (Colby, 2019).”

What about adults? It appears that our kids are taking our lead. A study reported in Time magazine found, “Some estimates show that U.S. adults now spend roughly 10 hours a day staring at TVs or digital devices, (Heid, 2018).” Common symptoms of too much screen time for adults includes headaches, long-term vision damage, poor sleep, mood changes, reduced attention span, weight gain, and higher risk of diabetes (Hartl, 2021). It looks like we all have much to contend with while our need to interact online only increases.

As an adult who is recovering from both physical and mental exhaustion directly resulting from workplace burnout, I am experiencing first-hand the life-changing impact that symptoms like those listed above can have on someone. Therefore, it came as no surprise, when I learned that one of the best ways to help combat stress and the feeling of chronic overwhelm is to become active in nature.

According to the Children’s Forest of Central Oregon, we need to “Celebrate and honor the diversity of ways that people connect with nature, both historically and today, whether it be neighborhood walks, family picnics, stargazing, farming, hunting, praying, or anything that provides joy and value to people’s lives.” I have come to truly believe that nature is the antidote to the physical and mental health effects of our fast-paced, technologically advancing world. We should seek ways to work together to remove barriers, so everyone has greater access.

Outdoor exposure provides many benefits. It heightens our senses, alerting us to smells, tastes, sounds, sights and textures not experienced online. There is freedom in unstructured movement and play. Our confidence grows, as we uncover problems and explore solutions both in the moment and within an uncontrolled environment. Outdoors, we can let our guard down and feel organically connected to the ground, the trees, and the sky around us. Best of all, I’ve discovered that my kids actually start to talk to me on outdoor trips. Like, really talk.

As I sit on my stool in the kitchen, I can easily predict the reaction that the twins will have at the mere suggestion of going outside. Despite this, I find comfort in knowing that if I can stay calm through the initial wave of refusals, the physical and mental reward we all will experience for heading to the river will far outweigh the often-huge effort and patience required to get there.

I want my kids to seek experiences outside on their own, as they mature, be it on a walk through a city park or an adventure off the grid. I want the outdoors to call to them. I want them to answer because they’ve already experienced its’ healing touch. We need to understand that our kids will need time to develop their own relationship with nature in order for it to become a part of who they are and what they value in their lives. Lucky for us, time is on our side in the outdoors.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Healthy habits take repetition to develop, because it takes time for all of us to process the impact of new experiences. By emphasizing time, I mean it is absolutely normal for it to take months and even years to “level up” our outside comfort zones. Everyone is different, so expect a range of responses.

What can parents do in the meantime? I believe it is my job as a parent to do my best to role-model healthy boundaries between technology and time in the outdoors for members of my family. If I tell them to get off their screens, are they seeing me do it, too? Kids go online in search of belonging and community. Nature is waiting to remind them that they also belong to the beautiful earth that beckons just outside their doorstep. The best part is that parents can help build the bridge between these two amazing worlds by providing regular opportunities for our kids and families to spend time outdoors.

Let’s be honest. We could all use a little more time outdoors in our daily routines. Here are TEN tried-and-true parenting strategies that I’ve found helpful in transitioning my kids from screens to the outdoors:

  1. Frontload the excursion/activity

When I give my kids a heads up about an upcoming outdoor activity, I find it allows them more time to adjust to the idea. They almost never like it at first. I tell them to plan their screen time accordingly, so they are ready for the outdoor excursion. This especially helps my son who has ADHD and respects his need to plan for transitions.

  • Discuss personal “choice time” versus family time with kids

The twins get only so much “choice time” each day in our family. We don’t call it screen time, because they decide how they want to spend it. This time is theirs to use as they wish after family chores and homework have been completed. We hold several family dinners each week. They are expected to participate without complaint. We light candles and try to make it fun. I’ve learned that longer family trips away from their precious Internet create anxiety for them. When I asked why, I learned that their online forts often get raided, and game progress can be automatically erased if they are inactive for too many days. We talk about how not everything is fair or equal in life while working on a plan to support them where we can. This conversation can be hard, because they experience a consequence for not engaging online, so we focus on discussing the value of skill rebuilding. The “online addiction withdrawals” typically take a day or two to for the twins to shed their attitudes on multi-day trips where we go “off the grid.” My partner and I come up with a plan for how we’re going to handle the minor skirmishes that are sure to occur during the Internet detox phase.  

  • Allow for choices of outdoor activities when possible

I’ve found that the twins appreciate having a choice in the types of outdoor activities we pursue. It’s from that old phrase – do you want green or lime? Either way, they are still going. It’s more fun for them if they get to choose some element of the trip. I recommend allowing them to process the initial news of the activity first before talking about how they are going to contribute.

  • Start with shorter outdoor excursions to build confidence

Kids can have big fears (adults, too!) about the unknown. I remember lying awake all night, because I was too afraid to go outside the tent in the dark to go to the bathroom. A full bladder will make you cold, and a lost night’s sleep impacts the next day’s mood and energy level at a minimum. Start with a walk in the park or a short one or two-hour day hike on a beginner’s trail. Then, slowly expand your adventures. Keep the activity more fun than challenging, and you’ll find that your child will start to relax and enjoy the experience more.

  • Incentives and rewards

Since the twins were little, I have had them pick out a special snack or treat bag just for the outdoor excursion/trip. That gives them something that they control and can look forward to using or eating. My kid’s favorite thing to choose is often a pair of binoculars and a bag of their favorite candy. Sometimes, I even take them to a candy store so they can pick it out for themselves. Just this morning, my son asked if he could bring a lightweight hammock on our backpacking trip. For multi-day trips, you’ll want to ensure that your kids also eat healthy food to keep up their energy. My personal incentive is to bring my identification book of plants and animals/insects/reptiles. We mark the images on the pages with the date when we identify a species along the river or trail. We also go out to eat together after a big trip to celebrate the experience.

  • The power of including friends in outdoor activities

Bring a friend along! In general, if kids are around other kids having fun, you’ll probably see their confidence skyrocket. They are much braver in the company of their peers – especially starting around age ten (middle school).  

  • Don’t yuck their yum

I work hard not to criticize their use of technology or make comparisons in front of my kids. I love the quote “reward the behavior you want to see, ignore the behavior you don’t” for most situations. Kids love their online communities and need to know we support them. I want them to trust me if issues arise, so they will trust me enough to get me involved. I want them to know I believe they are and can be a healthy online user. If they think an online issue will reinforce a parental belief that the Internet is bad, then they might choose to not involve me when they really could use my support. This lack of trust can transition to other scenarios. So be positive!

  • Inclusion matters – choose an activity everyone can do together

We have so many opportunities at our fingertips today, which greatly increase the number of folks who can be in the outdoors. We have paved trails, water sports, adaptive sports equipment and local groups, various forms of transportation, and more. It is important to know and care that everyone has had a positive experience in the outdoors. Listen to kids, and choose an activity that sets everyone up for success.

  • For more expensive outdoor activities, look for scholarships and sports/activity waivers

A great way to get kids involved in outdoor activities and excursions is to enroll them in local camps, clubs, non-competitive teams with skilled instructors and other kids. Local parks and recreation programs offer income-based sliding scale or free participant spots so it’s always worth a call. Many programs have gear that kids can borrow for the season. It may just take a call to speak with a program manager. Local gear swaps and season rentals provide additional ways to reduce the cost for gear. These resources often help remove the sometimes-hefty financial barrier that exists between the kids and outdoor sports and activities.

  1. First Try Five Times Family Rule

If I always gave in to my kids’ dislike of a new sport or activity after the first day and pulled them from the team or group, neither of them would be involved in outdoor sports at all. It’s hard to learn something new. If they have an extreme reaction, you do what you have to do. You know your kid best. We have always told the twins that they should try to go to five practices first to get a good feel for the sport. After that, if they still harbored some concerns, we would sit down and discuss their thoughts before brainstorming other options. Almost always, their initial concerns were about not knowing the other kids, or feeling uncomfortable not knowing the expectations or rules of the activity. If they were still adamant, I’d respect their experience and pull them from the sport or camp. Kids need to know parents trust them to practice working through these decisions.

Using this family rule, my son has gone from being terrified to learn to ski at the age of five to doing tricks and flips on his snowboard off ten-foot jumps at the ski resort at the age of thirteen. My daughter tried Nordic skiing at the age of eleven, and decided she didn’t want to continue after a dozen practices. She decided to focus on alpine skiing instead. I honored her request. Today, she downhill skies with confidence and wants to try snowboarding next. She recently told me that she did learn how to kick-turn on a steep mountainside from her Nordic ski practices, which she applies skiing in the backcountry.

To put it bluntly, I want my kids to love the outdoors. I also want my kids to be happy, healthy members of their online communities. This means helping them learn how to set healthy boundaries with their screens and prioritize spending some time in the outdoors, so they can continue to perform at their highest level.

I hope this information has been helpful. Feel free to respond to this article with tips you’ve found to be helpful in creating a healthier balance between our kid’s use of technology and experiencing the outdoors. I wish you success in balancing your virtual and outdoor adventures.

References

Colby, S. “Why Kids Should be Unplugged and In Nature.” Be Strong!! Tips and Techniques. 10 July 2019. Why Kids Should be Unplugged and in Nature » Be Strong.

Hartl, Kara. “Mental and Physical Symptoms of Too Much Screen Time.” Dr. Kara: The Blue Light Expert. 15 February 2021.  https://www.drkarahartl.com/uncategorized/mental-and-physical-symptoms-of-too-much-screen time/#:~:text=Poor%20mood%20and%20grogginess%2C%20headaches,of%20too%20much%20screen%20time.

Heid, M. “There’s Worrying New Research About Kids Screen Time and their Mental Health.” Time Magazine. 29 Oct. 2018. https://time.com/5437607/smartphones-teens-mental-health/

Kelly, J. “What Your Future Interview or Job May Be in the Metaverse.” Forbes Magazine. 31 August 2021. Why Your Future Interview Or Job May Be In The Metaverse (forbes.com).

“Screen Time and Children.” American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (February 2020). https://dev.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx

Townsend, A. “Metaverse – The Future of Virtual Meetings.” Aragon Research. 16 Dec. 2021. Metaverse – The Future of Virtual Meetings (aragonresearch.com).

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