Social Media’s “Nature Problem”
This month, the Surgeon General finally sent out an official warning to parents that “there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.” For those of us with teenagers this has been self-evident ever since our children started harassing us to own their own iPhones. The social distancing of the COVID era is a trifle compared with the institutionalized distance that “social” media puts between parent and child. More and more the world of real-time, in-person communication has the air of an accessory in teenage life. The real world, for adolescents, lives on their phones.
“To the hyper-scroller, unfiltered time spent quietly in a natural, non-human ecosystem is boring.”
I mention all this here on a site of an organization dedicated to giving voice to nature because I would argue that social media has done the same sort of short-circuiting to the relationship between people and nature as it has to the relationship between parents and children. While there is no reliable data that links disengagement with the natural world with the rise of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, one need only take a scroll through a random selection of nature “influencers” to see an immediate problem:
The people doing the posting are experiencing nature so you don’t have to.
And so we have the outdoor influencer. The intrepid explorer whose every photo seems to merit the caption. “Look at me! I’m in nature.”
For many of us, this is enough. Being present with nature takes effort. There is the planning, the travel, the schlep and all the associated hassle with swapping city for country. There is also a more subtle aspect of it all that social media seems to intensify. Namely, that, to the hyper-scroller, unfiltered time spent quietly in a natural, non-human ecosystem is boring. Time moves differently in an interconnected web of living things. Some movements are so slow as to be technically unobservable. The gradual recolonization of ground cover after a forest fire. The flow of glaciers over the course of a year. Others are inconvenient, expressing themselves only at times you might…