“Nature Deficit Disorder” – Let’s not burden children with it

Posted on April 22, 2012

It has become fashionable to talk about a fictitious condition called “Nature Deficit Disorder”. This habit is dangerous to children. Activists abusing this term should tread more carefully and with a greater sense of responsibility.

“Nature Deficit Disorder” was first coined by Robert Louv to describe the fact that children these days spend less time outdoors in ‘nature’, are less physically active and spend more time glued to their computers, TVs or game consoles. All this is reasonable and true.

However, the use of the term has recently fallen into abuse.

Yes, it is true that children today spend less time in ‘nature’. Some parents and many environmental activists would like this to change. But this may simply reflect the bias of those concerned (maybe rightly) with promoting ways for children to maintain a connection with ‘nature’; or the views of those who (mistakenly) believe that their own model of childhood remains the correct one for the 21st century. However, it is a big step from expressing a personal desire for children to spend more time outdoors to starting to bandy around terms that pathologize children and falsely burden them with the baggage of some kind of fictitious psychological ailment.

Having become involved in an online debate about this, I was pointed to some reviews of the literature about this ‘disorder’. The literature is utterly unconvincing that there is any such psychological ailment as ‘nature deficit disorder’. Rather the whole thing comes across as activism getting the better of common sense.

It may be true that some structured outdoor activities may, for instance, help some children who have attention deficit disorder (as does the latest pharmaceutical technology). But that’s a long way from implying that it is their lack of contact with nature that gave them that disorder in the first place. Similarly, some of today’s children may be inactive and overweight – things that can be helped by better diets and playing more soccer in the school playground. They are no evidence of a ‘nature deficit’.

Yet, this idea of nature deficit disorder still gets abused – from reports written by the UK’s National Trust to articles everywhere there is a danger that this fiction simply becomes an activist tool at children’s expense. Wendy Russell in a response to an online article expresses her concern “at the increasing trend towards pathologizing children. There may be a problem with children not being outdoors enough and not getting enough exercise, and there may be some relationships between this and playing (but they are not the same thing), but please, it is not a medical condition.” (her whole commentary is worth reading here). Dr David Pencheon, who heads the UK National Health Service’s sustainable development unit agrees: “we don’t want to medicalise it” and turn it into a burden for today’s children.

Let us not get carried away with activism that ends up burdening children with the language of a medical condition that doesn’t exist. There are much better, more productive and more responsible ways of arguing for our environment. According to Fiona Reynolds, the Director General of the National Trust, “we need to do everything we can to make it easy and safe for our children to get outdoors.” That’s a reasonable aim that many would buy into. But not at the cost of creating a false pathology and burdening children with it. So next time someone mentions ‘nature deficit disorder’ ask them whether they should get themselves checked out for ‘nature obsessive syndrome’.