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 

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Sesame Street helps unlock the secrets to the brain during children’s learning

By Tara Haelle, Health Editor
[This post appeared previously at Red Wine and Apple Sauce.]

Looking to let go of a little “mommy guilt” for using the television now and then to give yourself a breather? There may be plenty of evidence that leaving children to watch too much television is a bad idea, but there is something to the idea that educational TV is, well, educational. We have the brain scans to prove it!

A study published in PLOS Biology used functional MRI scans to check out the brains of 26 children and 20 adults while they watched 20 minutes of Sesame Street. The actual purpose of the study wasn’t to find out if Sesame Street was educational per se. Rather, it was to observe the neural processes in the brain while a child is learning “naturalistically” and then see whether what they saw could predict how well the children would perform on standardized IQ tests.

Often, participants in studies receive fMRI scans while they are doing some sort of task that is supposed to simulate learning and/or stimulate certain neural processes. For example, a study subject might be asked to put together a three-dimensional puzzle on a computer (so their head remains still enough for the scan) to see how the brain interprets spatial relations.

However, these sorts of oversimplified “lab” tasks are not always representative of real-world activities, so it’s not clear whether what the researchers see on the brain images during these tasks is necessarily indicative of what REAL-life spatial relations thinking looks like. Are the neural processes seen in an fMRI scan while putting together blocks on a computer screen the same as what’s seen in the brain while a person builds a treehouse?

In this study, the researchers found a partial answer to exactly that kind of question, and the answer is no.

The children in study, ranging in age from 4 to 11 and all typically developing, watched the same 20-minute montage of short clips with Big Bird, Cookie Monster, the Count, Oscar and the rest of the gang teaching numbers and letters, shapes and colors, planets and countries, and so on. Meanwhile, the fMRI was taking a snapshot of their brain every two seconds.

The fMRI (which uses a giant magnet, not radiation, to peek into the brain) works by dividing the brain into a 3-D grid so that it can measure the intensity of the brain signals in each little section (about 40,000 of them, called voxels). The researchers collected a total of 609 images of each participant’s brain, which they could then use to map out the neural processes of the participants while they were watching.

They also had the children (23 of them), in a separate fMRI scanning period, perform a one of those lab-only fMRI tasks. In this case, the kids matched isolated pairs of faces, numbers, words and shapes on the computer (they pressed a button if the two images shown matched) while the fMRI images of their brains were created.

Finally, the children (19 of them) took IQ tests that primarily tested their math and verbal skills. Then the researchers analyzed the maps of neural processes in the children and their comparisons with the adults.

They found a couple of interesting things. First, the kids whose neural “maps” were most similar to the adults also performed the best on the IQ tests. This means kids’ brain structure matures in a predictable way, which the researchers called “neural maturity.”

“Broadly speaking, the children showed group-level similarity to adults in cortical regions associated with vision (occipital cortex), auditory processing (lateral temporal cortex), language (frontal and temporal cortex), visuo-spatial processing and calculation (intraparietal cortex), and several other functions,” the authors wrote.

The fMRI scan on the left represents correlations in neural activity between children and adults, in the middle between children and other children, and on the right between adults and other adults. Such neural maps, says University of Rochester cognitive scientist Jessica Cantlon, reveal how the brain’€™s neural structure develops along predictable pathways as we mature.

Second, the brain maps created during the Sesame Street viewing accurately predicted how the children performed on the IQ tests. Kids who did better on the verbal tasks showed more mature neural patterns in a part of the brain that handles speech and language, called the Broca area. Meanwhile, the kids whose math scores were highest had more neural maturity in a part of the brain that processes numbers, called intraparietal sulcus.

But the researchers’ other finding was that those areas of neural maturity seen during Sesame Street viewing — the ones that matched up with the children’s scores on the IQ test — were not seen during the fMRI task of matching faces, numbers, words and shapes. Basically, the “let’s try to simulate what learning looks like in the brain” task designed specifically for fMRI scans didn’t help much. But the more naturalistic, organic learning that takes places while watching Sesame Street did work.

Researchers now know they can use activities like viewing educational TV to scan children’s brains and learn more about how they learn — and it’s more accurate and helpful than invented computer tasks. It’s possible this technology and research could be applied to understanding better what’s going on with certain learning disabilities.

But a nice additional finding is that, hey, Sesame Street really IS educational! Of course, my son’s favorite show is a different PBS production — Dinosaur Train (which I admit I enjoy too) — so I also feel a better that little D spends a half hour or two, several days a week, learning from Buddy the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Tiny the Pteranodon, Mr. Conductor and Dr. Scott the Paleontologist about dinosaurs, carnivores, herbivores and how to test a hypothesis. All aboard!

On this Father’s Day, let’s remember the allofathers, too

A big brother, practicing the art of allofathering.

By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor

On Mother’s Day, scientist and blogger Kate Clancy wrote an excellent post at Scientific American about allomothers, the people in your circle of friends and family who support mothers in their mothering. In thanking the allomothers in her life, Clancy included in that list her husband because men can be allomothers, too. Although this site is called Double X because we want to bring evidence-based science–and yes, some snark–to women, tomorrow is Father’s Day. So today, we’re shifting into XY gear and talking about allofathers. 

We all have or had fathers. Some for better, some for worse, some we may never have even seen. Many of us also have had other men in our lives who participated in a father role or who supported our fathers in the same way that Clancy writes about supporting mothers. The funny thing is, a Google search on “allofathers” confuses Google so badly that it actually declines to do that search and instead offers a search on “allomothers.” When you force it to search “allofather,” you get only three pages of scanty hits, some of which reference a more general “alloparenting.”

Why no love for the allofathers, Google? Fathers these days need allo support as much as mothers, or at least, the fathers I know do. As Paul Raeburn writes in this Father’s Day piece:

The grindingly slow recovery of the economy is making it hard for fathers to earn enough to help support their families. Those who do have jobs are working more hours, taking time away from checkers and family dinners. In many families, both parents are working, leaving less time for fathers and partners to work on their relationships with each other.

He notes that fathers these days thrive in a habitat that allows the time with family, time to do things other than make a living wage, although that remains an important feature of fatherhood and a key goal of every father I know. In fact, that emphasis means that my spouse–who is also the father of my children–is at work right now, on Saturday, after already putting in overtime through the week. Indeed, he may have to work tomorrow, on Father’s Day, and is looking at a midnight deadline Monday night. There will be no games of chess with Dad this weekend. 

The work is difficult enough and in a trying environment. And pushing against this need to work hard and keep a job is also a desire to have the kind of family time those of us in the United States have come to expect on weekends, particularly when we work salaried weekday jobs that ostensibly promise weekends off. That means that on top of the anxiety associated with stacking 20 or 30 extra hours onto a 40-hour work week to meet a tough deadline, my husband and my children’s father also feels angst about this inability to be a part of our family time. These are first-world problems, I realize, but that doesn’t make them any less real for us and our children.

So I’m allofathering for him. Yes, I’m the mother, but I’m also supporting my husband’s fathering role, in part by doing things that assure him that we’re all OK, and in part by doing things with our sons that people might think of as stereotypically “dad” activities: fishing, baseball, football, soccer, hiking. But I also have taken on the things he usually does around the house, like emptying the dishwasher Every Single Time, vacuuming, and doing the laundry. Bless the man, he usually does all the laundry. But I do miss the other allofathers in our lives.

We no longer live a stone’s throw or a short-ish drive from our extended family, but when we did and still when we visit, the allofathers are abundant. My children have uncles who take them fishing, monitor group infighting among nine cousins, catch snakes with them, play football and soccer with them, and take them on hikes and (fruitless) dove hunting. My husband does his share of allofathering for their children, reading books and playing with the youngest, making dinners, and serving as an ever-necessary playground monitor. And my children have a grandfather who builds things in his shop for them, closely monitors their BB gun target practice, wanders for hours with them in nearby woods to find animal bones, and patiently acknowledges every single mystifying LEGO construction and rambling imaginary story surrounding it.   

All of these alloparents expand the parenting and support and safety net for my children. They are the village raising my sons, and my children trust them implicitly. These allofathers summon up reserves of energy they probably didn’t know they had and in spending this time with their nephews or grandchildren, they add layers of complexity and different insights from father figures that my children wouldn’t otherwise have. They also model for children like my sons the many roles a man can have through life.

As humans, we fit several features of species that engage in this extra-parental parenting, including typically having a single offspring at a time, a relatively small number of offspring over a lifetime, and an extended period of parental investment, and being part of a highly social species with tight family bonds. It may be that as our culture evolves so that the father role expands into what was previously considered maternal territory, we need to more closely consider allofathers as well as allomothers. These factors that characterize us as an alloparenting species can add up to benefits and greater success for mothers and fathers and children alike. At any rate, I know that’s been the case in our family.

When I was growing up, I had four grandmothers and four grandfathers. Half of them were “step” grandparents, obviously, but I loved the fact that I had all of these grandparents, blissfully unaware in my childhood of the fractures and angst that had led to their presence in my life. Among these step-grandparents was the man who married my mother’s mother. They met over square-dancing, he a handsome architect, she a tiny, fiery single mother who could sew some kick-ass square-dancing outfits.

Through various unanticipated turns in Life’s do-se-do, after marrying my grandmother, this man one day became father to two of my cousins. From their early childhoods, he has been their father, even though for the rest of us cousins, he was our step-grandfather. Along with my grandmother, he committed himself to rearing them and being their parent, and today, in part thanks to his steady, calm presence, they are successful, happily married parents themselves. Without his stabilizing influence, their paths might have been much less straightforward. 

While what my step-grandfather did crossed over from alloparenting to being an actual father, my own children have a step-grandfather of their own who, I think, epitomizes allofathering. When we visit, he has a ready store of caps available for all the cap guns he buys them by the dozen (if you think there are a lot of guns in this post, there are; it’s Texas). He actually builds–builds–go carts and other motorized vehicles to take them buzzing around the large property where he and my mother live and maintains a fleet of bicycles for them to ride. He will drop anything to run a quick errand just because one of the youngest generation expresses a wish for a certain treat or toy. Ask him to make you an ax from a stick and a rock, and he’ll do it masterfully. He attends every volleyball, baseball, or basketball game my niece and nephew have and has simply been a steady and much-loved allofather figure in the lives of all of the youngest generation in our family.

When I think of men like these who enter into lives already structured around complex family interactions and who take on without comment or resentment the care and loving of the children in that family, I wonder if I could be as kind or selfless. Of course, I hope that I could. These little people are, after all, children, and they need love and support and classic grandparental spoiling and an understanding that parenting and parental love come in different forms and different ways of expression. To all the allofathers in my life, I–and my children–are extremely grateful. To all the fathers and allofathers out there, happy Father’s Day. And may I say, I think you all warrant more Google hits. 


***Special thanks to Kate Clancy for her post on allomothers and to Paul Raeburn for his post about the role of fathers today, which certainly drove my thinking about this topic.***

These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.