How To Be A Good Digital Citizen in the Great Outdoors

June 16, 2016

With summer upon us, our kids will (hopefully) be heading outdoors. But chances are they won’t be going anywhere without that little companion in their pockets: their mobile phones.

I don’t know about you, but I’m saddened when I see young people missing out on the wonders of a beautiful day because they’re staring down into a screen. You’ve probably noticed this too – families at the beach, or a national park, everyone busy texting or checking their email and social media accounts.

Surely there’s a way for nature and technology exist together happily?

A couple years ago my friend Michele Whiteaker, founder of and co-founder of asked me to collaborate with her to answer the following question: “How to be a good digital citizen outdoors?” We decided to take a look at this issue from the perspective of family balance and respecting the rights of others to enjoy our natural resources. We both believe that finding a healthy balance between our online and offline lives, especially for our children, is one of the great challenges of our day.

With these thoughts in mind, Michele and I came up with the following guidelines to help families as they head outdoors (you can download these guidelines and printer-friendly mini-posters here):

  • Research before, share after. The time to use technology to enhance your nature experience is before you go outdoors and after you get back. Michele calls this strategy “bookending.” Of course it’s okay to make some time and space to snap a few photos while you’re out, but otherwise turn that selfie stick into a walking stick, put your smartphone in your pocket and be present in your nature experience.
  • Turn off the sound and look around. Part of the nature experience is silence and wild sounds. No one wants to hear the click, click, click of texting or taking photos. If you’d rather hear music on the trail, wear headphones. Nature is a sacred place to those who are enjoying it and the wildlife that calls it home. Do your best not to interrupt others.
  • Don’t trample the woods to share your goods. Getting that one-of-a-kind shot to share with “friends” doesn’t mean you should trample or deface natural resources. Recent events of graffiti at national parks shared on Instagram or ex-Scout leaders knocking over ancient rock formations to shoot a video show the inappropriate extent people will go to “share” their experience with others.
  • Tech is not terrible, but how you use it may be. Technology is often vilified and placed in opposition to nature experiences, but it can be a handy tool. Use it for identification, research, or like how you would use a book (remember those?) to enhance your outdoor experience. But remember, you don’t need to know the name of something to enjoy it.
  • Don’t be driven to distraction. Ask yourself: Is your tech helping you see things or is it making you miss the moment? If your goal is time in nature to balance your tech use, give nature 100 percent of your attention. There are tales of a whole class missing the breaching of whales during a coastal hike or others who missed a deer smack in front of them because they were distracted by their devices.
  • Let “why” be your guide. Always ask yourself if you need to be connected (Are you blogging to inspire others? Keeping a nature photo album? Telling a story? Doing research? “Collecting” flora and fauna through photographs? Navigating your way around?) If the answer is “no” – then put away your devices for later and enjoy the moment.
  • Nature is its own best teacher. The real value of nature comes when we can experience it for what it is. When you see something occur in nature that you’ve never seen before and may never seen again, you’ve found the wonder that makes it so beneficial. This is a small dose of what Richard Louv calls “Vitamin N,” which can help us navigate struggles and makes us healthier, smarter and happier.
  • An hour away is more than okay. Always, always, always leave time for enjoyment and the purity of the moment. Don’t let the constant beeping of text messages, tweets and waiting Snapchats get in the way. They will be there later. As you get out more, you’ll get better at this. We promise.

For myself, I’ve found a nice balance between technology and the outdoors in a handy little app called Strava. It records my outdoor pursuits on a bike or a hike without any action from me (other than remembering to turn it on) and lets me share my experiences with friends afterwards. Michele is constantly writing about her outdoor experiences in her blog, but her “bookending” strategy of taking photos when her family arrives at a place, putting it away during the outing, and sharing later when she gets home gives her all the benefits of getting outdoors without the distraction.

So, in other words, being a fan of nature doesn’t mean one has to be an enemy of tech. It’s all about balance.

And sunsets.

Photo courtesy of

Written by

Diana Graber

Diana Graber, author of “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology (,” is the founder of Cyberwise ( and Cyber Civics (, two sites dedicated to improving the digital literacy skills of adults and children.