Source: BBC Radio 4: Today Programme
Date: 30/03/2012
EventStephen Moss explains why children are "missing out" on nature

  • Aleks Krotoski: Technology writer and researcher on the internet
  • Stephen Moss: Naturalist, writer and broadcaster, based at the BBC Natural History Unit
  • Justin Webb: Presenter, BBC Radio 4: Today Programme

Justin Webb: Hello, Mr Moss - set out your thesis, first of all.

Stephen Moss: Well, my thesis is very simple, that children need nature. They need to play outdoors, in the same way that they need good food, good sleep and good education. And if we do not allow them to go outdoors, there are all sorts of consequences in the short term and long term for them, for their physical health - obesity is rising - their mental health, and also just the fact that they've been missing out on this wonderful, wonderful world out there, that is so precious and needs us - needs the children and needs adults, as much as we need it.

Justin Webb: And you have real firm evidence, do you, that they go out less now than they used to?

Stephen Moss: Oh, all the evidence suggests this. I mean, we know that, for example, when I was growing up, in the 1960s, 90% of eight-year-olds walked to school. Now I don't know a child who walks to school now, certainly not on their own. We know that children are - it's not - it's very easy to blame technology for this, and I think that's a very, um, wrong way to go about it, because technology is a symptom of it. There's nothing wrong with technology - the internet and television can teach children a huge amount about the natural world. What is different, though, is that when they go out and interact with nature, this is genuine interactivity, because nature doesn't come with an instruction manual. Nature is somewhere where they have to use their imagination in all sorts of very creative ways.

Justin Webb: Aleks Krotoski, a lot of modern technology doesn't come with an instruction manual either, when it should, but that's beside the point. Did you accept at all - I mean, number one, the factual case that's made by the National Trust and by Stephen Moss - there is simply less interaction between children and outdoors?

Aleks Krotoski: Undoubtedly, I'm on the side of the idea behind this report. My problem with -

Justin Webb: I suspect everyone is.

Aleks Krotoski: - exactly, it's kind of - yeah. It's not rocket science. The problem is that this report actually isn't science. And that is the problem that I have with it. It dresses up this idea of nature deficit disorder as a psychological ill. Absolutely, everybody has a - kind of, has a general idea that yes, kids should go outside, and that there are problems with kids not going outside. There is no actual evidence, that's written up in this report, that this so-called nature deficit disorder exists. There's also the nature deficit disorder - there's no - it's not recognised by any medical manuals for mental disorders. To dress up this general idea behind science, I think actually undermines the National Trust's argument and agenda. 

Justin Webb: Would you be better placed, Stephen Moss, just to make a sort of general complaint, and not try to have this, this syndrome involved?

Stephen Moss: I'm sorry, Aleks is completely wrong about this. Because in no way, and nowhere in the report do we say - in fact, we explicitly say in the opening of the report, that nature deficit disorder is not a proper, recognised medical condition. Of course it's not. It's a very useful term, however, to describe the very good statistics that show that children simply do not spend as much time outdoors as we did when we were young. It was very normal, when I was growing up, to be sent out by your mother with the words "Be back home for tea". And we now, it makes it seem like something out of an Enid Blyton book. I grew up in a single parent family, on a housing estate on the edge of London. This is what all children did. And there is absolutely no doubt that in this report, the statistics are there to show, for example, three times as many children are taken to casualty departments every year for accidents from falling out of, or off of, their bed than from falling out of trees. And that is an absurd situation.

Justin Webb: And, Aleks Krotoski, Stephen Moss says he doesn't blame technology, and technology is a symptom, but technology is - if we all accept that children should be out of doors more and in their bedrooms less, technology is a problem, isn't it?

Aleks Krotoski: Technology is, as Stephen Moss says, part of the symptom...

Justin Webb: It's addictive, then? 

Aleks Krotoski: Now you're using the emotive words, the emotive terms that are within this report, and that, I think is a -

Justin Webb: I'm not, actually - trying to quote - 

Stephen Moss: The word "addictive" doesn't appear in the report.

Justin Webb: No, I'm sorry - 

Aleks Krotoski: It does. It appears in the report, as do the framing of technology and also the framing of the other elements, the other conditions that you say - 

Stephen Moss: I'm sorry, you can't deny that children are not going out -

Aleks Krotoski: Absolutely -

Justin Webb: So let her argue this point - let her answer this point about the technology, then.

Aleks Krotoski: The point that I have is that the evidence that you provide for the outcomes of children not going outside, I think is flawed. There are no primary sources that are referenced in this report. This idea of an increase in depression and an increase in obesity - there is evidence out there -

Justin Webb: There is unquestionably an increase in obesity - 

Aleks Krotoski: Absolutely, but there's no necessary evidence that the nature deficit disorder is the thing that causes this obesity, that the technology causes this obesity. 

Justin Webb: We will -

Aleks Krotoski: We cannot conflate correlation with causation.