University study says yes

Does using a phone in the great outdoors destroy the unique experience of getting back to nature?

Most people’s immediate reaction would probably be “yes it does, put your flipping phone away”.

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We all know someone who halts the flow of a ride to take a million Instagram pics. Or someone who doesn’t know if they’ve had a good time until they upload Strava and look at the trophy tally.

PhD study reports benefits of tech devices

But just hang on a minute. New research from Lincoln University (the New Zealand one) claims that “high-tech devices are more likely to enhance outdoor pursuits than detract from them.”

PhD student Caroline Dépatie has surveyed various outdoor user groups in an area called the Port Hills to discover how technology transforms the outdoor experience.

She also investigated “whether people found it difficult to deal with the paradox of experiencing the natural environment while using their devices.”

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Recreation, Sport and Leisure Senior Lecturer Dr Roslyn Kerr, one of the project supervisors: “The Port Hills are a unique peri-urban setting, in that they combine the natural and the urban, so perhaps technological devices will be used more readily here than in true wilderness settings.

Eroding or enhacing?

“Some research participants felt awkward about using technology due to its potential to erode their experience of nature.

“But more commonly, they used devices to enhance their experience. Many felt safer carrying a cellphone and some listened to music or used fitness trackers to increase their motivation to exercise.

“Ultimately, they used their devices in different ways for a personalised experience. They described making very deliberate decisions about when and how to use their digital devices based on their motivations and setting.”

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Over 500 people were surveyed about which digital devices they used during their activities and why they used them. Then out these, 30 were interviewed further about how the devices either altered or enhanced their experiences.

Positive reasons

The most popular activities were walking and mountain biking. 87 per cent carried some form of digital technology, most commonly a smartphone.

Reasons included: safety, communicating with friends and family, photos, fitness data, listening to music.

A mountain biker said her experience was enhanced by using technology to self-track fitness data, which pushed her to go further each time and increased competition amongst friends. (Is competition amongst friends solely a good thing though?)

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Those who listened to music said it boosted their motivation to exercise and enhanced the enjoyment of the activity, but only if they were alone.

Leave the phone at home sometimes

Dr Kerr continued: “However, participants seemed to deliberately leave their devices behind when recreating with others, as it represented a potential disruption to the social experience.

“This adds weight to the fact that people are happy to be able to pick and choose when they use digital technology in outdoor settings, rather than be deprived of the option to use their devices at all.”