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How to Be a Digital Citizen Outside

It's heartbreaking to see a young person (or anyone for that matter) missing the wonders of a beautiful day because they are gazing down into a smartphone. So when my friend Michele Whiteaker, founder of and co-founder of asked me to collaborate with her a couple years ago on answering the question, “How can one be a good digital citizen outdoors?,” I jumped at the chance. As two moms who make our livings largely from behind our computers, but who are also crazy for the outdoors, this was right up our respective alleys. Inevitably, children are bringing their devices to public parks and nature spaces without knowing basic etiquette or what it means to be a good digital citizen outdoors. With this in mind, we came up with these eight guidelines to help young people (and their parents!) find a healthy balance between tech and nature:

Research before, share after.

The time to use technology to enhance your nature experience is before you go 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.

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 tech time for later and enjoy the moment.

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, give nature 100% 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.

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 Snaps get in the way. They will be there later. As you get out more, you’ll get better at this. We promise.

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 their experience.

Tech is not terrible, but how you use it may be.

Technology is often vilified and placed into opposition with nature experiences, but it can be a handy tool. Use it for identification, research, or how you would use a book (remember those?) to enhance your outdoor experience. But remember, you don’t have to know the name of something to enjoy it.

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 to get it. 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 extent people will go to “share” their experience with others.

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, that’s the wonder that makes it so beneficial and just a small dose of what Richard Louv calls “Vitamin N” can help us navigate struggles and makes us healthier, smarter, and happier.

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 off) and lets me share my experiences with friends afterwards. Michele is constantly writing about her outdoor experiences, 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.

DOWNLOAD THE "GOOD DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP" PRINTABLE Diana Graber is the Co-Founder of CyberWise (a.k.a., “No Grownup Left Behind”). She also founded and teaches Cyber Civics, the middle school digital literacy program now being taught in schools in 25 U.S. states and internationally. She is passionate about the outdoors and technology. Michele Whiteaker is a writer and Certified Interpretive Guide who helps Southern California families discover local nature using her free blog and co-published this membership site. Whether it’s finding joy outdoors or using tech responsibly, she finds leading by example is her most effective and rewarding parenting strategy.

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