Screens to Nature – Supporting Youth Mental Health With Climate Action

Jan 25, 2023 | Gary Zed
On #NationalMentalHealthDay, I’m reflecting on the topic of youth mental health and the need for more nature in young people’s lives. 

The research on the correlation between screen time and poor mental health is telling. 

Every additional hour above the recommended 2-hour threshold that a young person spends on their screen is connected to a higher likelihood of having health issues like depression, anxiety, unhealthy weight gain, sleep disruption and behavioural problems, among others.  During the pandemic, youth engagement with non-virtual school-based screen time increased by over 3 hours per day compared to pre-pandemic days. Although most youth are back in their classrooms, some researchers have stated that “sustained problematic screen use habits may have been formed.” 

Pivoting away from screens and towards nature is one of the most effective and accessible ways to help youth build healthy habits to boost their energy, mood, academic performance, physical activity levels and overall well-being.

The rise in screen time is not the only thing impacting youth’s mental health. 

Concerns about climate change and the future (a.k.a climate anxiety or eco-anxiety) are affecting youth globally.  With 10,000 youth surveyed across 10 countries, 60% are ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’ about climate change. A recent study conducted by Save The Children also found that 70% of children in the UK are worried about the world they are inheriting. Here in Canada, climate change is a top-five issue for Canadian youth, tied with jobs and the economy

Young Canadians are at the forefront of climate action. Empowering youth to take real climate action is one way of decreasing their overall anxiety because it allows them to put their future into their own hands.  

When youth engage in outdoor education and nature-based activities, they gain greater respect and a deeper connection to the environment. And we all know that the more we care about something, the more effort we will put into preserving and protecting it. 

Encouraging youth-based climate action can be as simple as engaging youth in nature-based programs and educational opportunities. Canada’s Forest Trust’s School Smart Forest program is a perfect example of a no-cost, Canadian-based program that provides students with opportunities to make tangible impacts on the planet through a Smart Forest Fundraiser. Other environmental programs for youth can be found through organizations such as EcoSchools Canada, Classrooms 2 Communities (C2C), Take Me Outside, Project Learning Tree Canada (PLT), and Outland Youth Employment Program (OYEP).  As I look at my own kids, now young adults, I am optimistic that given the proper tools and support, this rising generation will place a value on nature in ways our generation has not. 

Our kids have a lot on their minds, so helping them disconnect from screens and reconnect with nature is one of the very best ways we can nurture more resilient mental health.  It couldn’t hurt us to follow that advice either.