Green spaces are great, if you can put down your digital devices

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 8:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 10:32pm

Excessive use of electronic devices has become a worldwide problem and its negative health consequences have been recognised by the World Health Organisation. On a global scale, the estimated number of internet users in 2018 is 4.02 billion and estimated time spent to be online in 2018 is around one billion years.

Overuse of portable digital devices depletes attention capacity, a critical cognitive resource. Attention matters for everything we want to accomplish, whether it is learning or occupational tasks, problem-solving, self-monitoring or effective social functioning.

This inattentiveness and resultant irritability can have impacts ranging from vehicular or occupational accidents and low learning performance, to depression, poor social relationships, aggression or violence. Attention deficits can also trigger impulsiveness, leading to impacts like drug addiction, unhealthy sexual behaviour and low self-discipline.

In view of the importance of attention enhancement, two colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rose Schmillen and William C. Sullivan, and I conducted a study on whether green spaces enhance attention in spite of electronic screen engagement. Attention restoration theory says contact with nature promotes attentional functioning, but how does that interact with the use of electronic devices?

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We studied 81 participants in a campus town in Illinois as they performed cognitive tasks and were then randomly assigned to one of four rest treatments: green settings with or without a laptop computer, and barren settings with or without a laptop computer.

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Attention was measured three times. Analysis showed a significant effect for both setting and use of a laptop as well as a significant interaction between setting and laptop use. A further analysis controlling for time spent focused on the laptop screen produced similar results.

In this study, using an electronic device substantially counteracted the attention enhancing benefits of being in a green space. The findings, published in the Environment and Behaviour journal, suggest that a common assumption people have about taking a break by using an electronic device may be counterproductive.

Individuals in this study who were randomly assigned to take a break while using an electronic device showed no improvement in their attention performance after a 15-minute break. To reap the benefits of being in a restorative green space, it appears that one needs to take in the soft details of the landscape. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that, to enhance your attention capacity, it is not enough to go to a green space; the evidence here suggests you have to put aside your electronic devices in that space.

Dr Bin Jiang, assistant professor, Faculty of Architecture, University of Hong Kong