No phones on the beach or in the forest? Seriously?

This article was originally published at The Conversation in my column on Wired Well-being.

We must all now be very familiar with complaints about how the hours we spend glued to our devices eat into family time and other meaningful relationships. Stories range from children who’d rather play with phones than eat at the table (for which there’s an app to lock them out at mealtimes) to addictions in the making and ones that “threaten the very fabric of society”.

Locking away your phone may be the answer for some, and at the moment we can’t be sure whether our use of digital devices will have a positive or negative effect on our health, but isn’t it more about being smart about how you use them?

While VisitScotland took the opportunity to sell poor mobile reception as a great time to experience the “novelty of luddism”, the New Forest National Park in southern England is inviting visitors to lock away phones in what it calls the “world’s first creche for technology and car keys”. The idea is that wandering in the forest without mobiles will “get families connecting.”

Asked about this initiative on BBC radio, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood made the case for disconnecting. He also commented on plans to introduce wifi to Bournemouth beach. While he welcomed them, he said there should also be mobile-free quiet zones.

Bournemouth also happens to be my local beach. And I profoundly disagree with Mr Ellwood. Mobile-free zones on beaches are technically impractical, if not impossible, and only reinforce the notion that we can’t enjoy nature without being “switched off”. Quiet coaches on trains, arguably an easier thing to enforce, didn’t exactly work and are being scrapped. The idea of depriving people of their connections is a backwards way of thinking and out of step with modern life.

The town, in any case, is supporting Silicon Beach, an annual gathering of techies and digital entrepreneurs, in September. Organiser Matt Desmier recently said that the conference along with other notable digital events, two universities and myriad award-winning agencies, meant Bournemouth was “emerging as a creative and digital hotspot to rival Brighton or Bristol”.

Bournemouth is clearly working towards being a place where wired people can hang out and work while pursuing healthy digital lives. Talking about mobile-free quiet zones at the mere suggestion of having wifi on the beach seems an anathema to this. I know where I’d rather be working (ideally in the sunshine, though Bournemouth of course isn’t the Bahamas).

Spurred on by the moral panic about the time we spend using personal technology, Ellwood said it was “a little bit worrying” that we now carried out offices and social lives with us. Meanwhile, the New Forest National Park declared that “a battle is raging” in families with smartphones.

Is it really? Do any of these claims mean anything at all? Or is it just that X out of Y media outlets think that negative stories about our digital lives attract Z number of readers, while only a minority of readers enjoy technology stories with a positive bent?

Conflicted organisations

The New Forest National Park seems to be engaged in its own conflicted struggle with technology. Is it good for you, or is it not? The park already offers a pretty good New Forest App with advice on where to cycle, walk, sleep and eat, as well as updated events and travel, yet now it seems to want us to stop using it and go off to play among the trees, stripped of our phones.

But is it true that technology makes the outdoor experience somehow impure – a belief that is no doubt ingrained in many minds? Or, alternatively, can it actually expand our enjoyment of it? Perhaps, as I’ve suggestedbefore, we already use our phones to enhance our woodland experiences. They give us maps and GPS, apps for identifying plants and creatures, audio to record them, cameras to photograph them, and tools to draw and write about them. Plus, of course, the ability to call or text if needed. The Wild Network, an offshoot of The National Trust which is dedicated to reconnecting children with nature, is exploring the connections between “screen time” and “wild time”.

Humans have always brought technology into nature, from the earliest adzes and axes to presentday equipment of all kinds. And people have always used natural spaces to connect and socialise, whether in green woodland gatherings or sunny beach parties. Smartphones and devices are a tool too, just a new kind, that come with apps specifically designed to be used in those spaces. Turning off will always be your choice, there’s no need to make up yet more rules about quiet zones.

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