Are children today really suffering nature deficit disorder (TM)?

Children working in a London hosiery mill
around the turn of the century. Did they have
“Nature-Deficit Disorder (TM)”? Source.

Maybe you’ve heard of the scourge plaguing modern-day children, the one known as Nature Deficit Disorder (TM). You won’t find it in any of the standard diagnostic manuals used to identify true disorders, but the “disorder” arises, so the story goes, as a result of keeping children inside for fear of their safety and “stranger danger,” loss of natural surroundings in cities and neighborhoods, and increased attractions indoors that prevent spending time outdoors. 

This “disorder” is supposed to be an effect of modern times, the combined effects of controlling and fearful parents along with the irresistible screen-based attractions indoors. As a result of this “disorder,” children can allegedly be susceptible to any number of ills, including less respect for and understanding of nature, depression, shorter life spans, and obesity.

Concerns like these, it seems, have arisen with the advent of each new technological advance. One wonders if the invention of the wheel raised alarms that children might move through their natural surroundings too quickly to take them in. At any rate, while the person who invented this disorder, Richard Louv, has actually trademarked the term, it doesn’t seem to have made a big splash in the scientific literature. Given that studies are lacking–i.e., completely absent–about “nature deficit disorder,” one thing we can do is take a look back at how children lived before the technological age to see if their indoor-outdoor lives and exposure to the natural world were substantially different.

Go far enough back in human history, and of course, we all spent a lot of time outside. But how did we spend our time with the rise of civilization? Children in agrarian societies then and now worked from dawn to dusk as part of the family to put food on the table. In such a position, they certainly had no lack of exposure to nature, although how much they appreciated that endless grind could be in question. That is, of course, if they didn’t die in infancy or early childhood, as a large percentage of them did in spite of all that fresh air and time outside.

But what happened with children and how they spent their time with the rise of towns and cities? In early times, many of those cities were walled compounds, not necessarily hives of scum and villainy, but generally stacks upon stacks of living quarters existing solely for functionality. Nature? Outside the walls, where danger–including the most extreme kind of “stranger danger”–lurked. Cities that lacked walls, as ancient Rome did for a long period, still were more focused on efficient crowding and function far more than on nature, with only the wealthy having gardens, the modern equivalent of today’s back yards. In general, there were people, there were buildings, and there were more people. Not wildly different from, say, Manhattan today–except for that whole natural jewel known as Central Park.

This piling on of people, brick, mortar, more people, and wood continued for children who didn’t live in agrarian societies. With the Industrial Revolution, what may have really been a nature deficit disorder for a child living, in, say, London, became a genuine threat to health. While they certainly didn’t have television to keep them indoors, they also didn’t have child labor laws. The result was that children who once might have been at work at age 4 in a field were now at work at age 3 or 4 in a factory, putting in 12 or so hours a day before stepping out into the coal-smoked, animal-dung-scented air of the city. 

Child labor wasn’t something confined to Industrial Revolution Britain, and it continues today, both for agriculture and industry. I do wonder if the children harvesting oranges in Brazil feel any closer to nature than the children weaving carpets in Egypt. Likely, there are deficits more profound for them to worry about.

The trigger for this overview of whether or not things have really changed over recorded history in terms of children’s exposure to the natural world is this series of articles in the New York Times (NYT). In case you hit the paywall, it is the NYT’s “Room for Debate” series and includes four articles addressing whether or not nature shows and films connect people to the natural world or “contribute to ‘nature deficit disorder'” by keeping people glued to screens instead of being outside.

Louv, the coiner of “Nature deficit disorder TM”, is one of the four contributors to the debate. He argues that viewing nature documentaries can inspire us to go outside. He also thinks many of us grew up watching “Lassie” instead of the “Gilligan’s Island” my generation watched, but perhaps there’s not a huge difference between Timmy in the well and Gilligan in the lagoon and consequent outdoor inspiration. At any rate, Louv does argue in favor of viewing nature shows, although from a very first-world perspective (like the Romans and gardens, we don’t all have back yards, for example). 

Perhaps the least-defensible perspective is the argument that Ming (Frances) Kuo, an associate professor of natural resources and environmental sciences, has to offer. She compares nature documentaries to “junk food” and offers the obvious: They’re no comparison for the real world. For some reason, she implies that someone has argued that when you have access to TV, you don’t need access to nature, saying, “Scientists have been discovering that even in societies where just about everyone has access to a TV, Internet, or both, having access to nature matters.” I honestly don’t think anyone’s ever argued against that.

Does “nature deficit disorder” exist and is indoor screen time with nature documentaries to blame? In addition to the historical observations I’ve made above suggesting that children from previous eras haven’t necessarily been wandering the glades and meadows like wayward pixies, all I have to offer is a bit of anecdata, and I’m curious about the experiences of others. Historical comparisons suggest that city-dwelling children are no more deficient nature-wise today than city-dwelling children of yesteryear. But do nature documentaries help… or hinder?

When I was young and watching too much “Sesame Street,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and “Star Trek,” the only nature show available to me was “Wild Kingdom” (Mutual of Omaha’s, natch). Other than that, we had nothing unless a periodic NOVA episode came on public television. 

I was interested in science and nature, but acquiring knowledge outside of what I read in a book was difficult. As a resident of the great metropolis of Waco, Tex., yes, I had a natural world to explore, but let’s face it: The primates there weren’t that interesting, and bluebonnets get you only so far. I had no access to real-life live-motion visuals, auditory inputs, or information delivered in any form except what I could read in a book. Talk about sensory limitations.

These days, my children have a nature documentary library that extends to dozens and dozens of choices. And they have watched every single one, some of them repeatedly. That’s not to say that they don’t also have dozens of well-thumbed field guides and encyclopedias covering fossils, dinosaurs, plants, bugs, sharks, rocks–the usual obsessions of the young who are interested in nature. Our “movie nights” often kick off with a nature documentary, and our pick of choice will frequently be one involving narration from David Attenborough. My children want to be David Attenborough–so do I, for that matter–and I can’t recall ever really having that feeling about Marlin Perkins or Jim Fowler

And the upshot of that access to an expanse of nature documentaries I never had is that their knowledge of nature is practically encyclopedic. I’m the biologist in the family–or at least the one who has the biology degree–but my children often know more than I do about a specific plant or animal or ecosystem or area of the world, all thanks to these documentaries they watch. And when we’re outside, they extrapolate what they’ve learned, generalizing it to all kinds of local natural situations.

Do children today just need to be moving around more, somewhere, somehow? Oh, yes. But watching nature shows hasn’t exacerbated some kind of “nature deficit” my children might have, Minecraft obsessed as they are. And these documentaries haven’t replaced “real” nature with televised nature. Instead, the shows have expanded on and given context to the nature my children encounter, wherever that is–city, country, farm, sky, ocean, parking lot, grocery store, or even inside their own home, which is currently the scene of a sci-fi-like moth infestation that has triggered much excitement. I’d hazard that far from causing a deficit, nature shows have given my children a nature literacy that was unknown in previous generations. 



What is your take on nature deficits and nature documentaries?


By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor 

UneXXpected Science: Does ADHD have benefits in certain environments?

Mmmm. Novelty seeking. (Source.)

Anyone who has ADHD—attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder—can tell you the stories. Stories of getting into constant trouble, hearing “sit down, sit still, be quiet” repeatedly, endlessly, feeling the urge to move, touch, jump, talk, roll, do anything but sit quietly at a desk, working on math. And, as anyone who has ADHD can also tell you, these traits often don’t exactly help you get ahead in modern society. School requires stillness, attention, focus on pencil and paper work. Most jobs require focus, attention, sometimes an ability to tolerate the sheer boredom of four walls of a grey cubicle for eight hours each day. Most people would struggle with that, but with attention deficit, it’s more than a struggle.

A cubicle environment obviously is probably not the best place for someone with ADHD, although it may be beneficial in less boxy workplaces. And school can be a long, troubling, negative process, as well. People used to blame the parents of children with this disorder, laying the cause of ADHD at the feet of poor parenting–and some are still trying to lay that blame. Science has something else to say about it, having demonstrated that genes are actually the primary contributors to ADHD, specifically genes that encode proteins whose job is to “receive” messages from a brain chemical called dopamine.


Dopamine signaling underlies all kinds of behaviors, but primarily it is known for its involvement in reward pathways, novelty seeking, and addiction. Specific forms, or alleles, of dopamine receptor genes have been strongly associated with ADHD, and this disorder can be viewed in many cases as a constant search for reward and novelty, a search that can translate as inattentiveness or hyperactivity.


Given that this dopamine-based manifestation is rooted in genes, the question arises of why it has persisted in humans throughout our evolution. If we look around at modern society, it’s easy to see that ADHD behaviors generally are not conducive to being one of the “fittest” in many situations that take up most of our time. Yet, there has been enough associated advantage for these gene forms to persist and allow their carriers to reproduce and pass them along to offspring.


And that’s where we need to think in nature’s evolutionary terms. Modern society is just that—modern. This way of life has only been around for, at most, a few thousand years, which can be a blink of an eye for processes of natural selection. Dial back time about 10,000 years or 20,000 years, and you’ll be hard pressed to find any humans living in an environment anything remotely like a cubicle.


Natural selection results from the interaction of genes and environment, and the “selection” Nature’s making is for an individual’s genetic makeup to have some representation in future generations. To look at this process through Nature’s lens, take the gene forms associated with ADHD and place them in a different environment and ask the question: Do they help or hurt or make no difference at all?  

This question is exactly what researchers addressed when they looked at the effects of an ADHD-related gene form on a group of nomadic people, the Ariaal, in Kenya. Some members of this population had, in only the last few decades, made a transition to a sedentary, city-type lifestyle. Others continued to live the fast-moving, nomadic existence of their herding ancestors.


Researchers looked at a version of a dopamine receptor called DRD4-7R, which also has been implicated in autism symptoms in people with ADHD. They found that city dwellers with this form of the gene didn’t fare as well in health as their sedentary cousins without it. But the Ariaal who continued their nomadic existence and carried the 7R form of the gene fared better than those nomadic tribesmen without it. To assess health, the researchers looked at body mass index and other factors. 

The results suggest that there might be some benefit to ADHD in the backdrop of a nomadic culture. although a more recent analysis of several studies together suggests a different form of this receptor may have an ADHD association (this kind of study, called a meta-analysis, doesn’t provide new data but synthesizes existing data). 

Regardless of which gene forms are involved, you can imagine that in a nomadic culture, it might be useful to be always looking around, seeking novelty, thriving on the rewards of changing behaviors, defending food, and being always on the move. Someone with ADHD likely would be far better fit for this kind of lifestyle than would the best desk jockey in the world. This interesting study demonstrates that when it comes to some of the neurological developmental manifestations we call “disorders,” how negative or positive they are may be a matter of environment.


By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor 

I Am Mental Illness: Anorexia–Biting Back

Battling the uninformed, insurance companies, and your own compulsions

[Ed. note: This post is the first in our series, “I Am Mental Illness,” bringing you personal experiences living with a mental illness. It’s likely that no single one of us lives a life untouched by mental illness, our own or that of someone we know. Yet in spite of their high prevalence, these disorders remain stigmatized and undersupported. To learn more about mental illness, you can start with the National Alliance on Mental Illness website. To learn more about anorexia and other eating disorders, you can start with this guidebook from the National Institute of Mental Health. Double X Science has previously featured a post by Harriet Brown describing the effects of family-based treatment for anorexia. Continue reading