Stay on Your Smartphone!

November 1, 2016, Department, by Keri Schwab, Ph.D., Susan Houge Mackenzie, Ph.D., William W. Hendricks, Ph.D., Lindsey M. Higgins, Ph.D., Marni Goldenberg, Ph.D., Jerusha Greenwood, Ph.D., and Brian Greenwood, Ph.D.

Does your agency face a challenge simply connecting with youth in your community? Do you have programs designed to get youth outdoors, but feel that the ever-changing landscape of social media and technology needed to reach them is a maze? Are your state-of-the-art outdoor recreation and education programs really cool but participation is waning?

In an effort to identify social media messages that resonate with youth, and that will ultimately encourage them to connect with nature, researchers from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, embarked on an exploratory investigation of urban youths’ motives to spend time outdoors, and their social media use. Rather than viewing social media and technology as the downfall of youths’ engagement with nature, we sought to find out how agencies can capitalize on the convergence of nature and technology.

Despite the well-known mental, social and physical health benefits of spending time in nature, youth are increasingly disconnected from natural areas and outdoor recreation activities. This separation can hinder environmental awareness and opportunities for physical, social and mental health enhancement. The impacts of limited contact with nature are often more pronounced in low-income urban areas and for minority residents due to “park poor” neighborhoods with little to no access to natural areas. 

Messages that Resonate

Time spent online is often sedentary, but if leveraged appropriately, social media could be a medium that fosters health and social behavior change among youth. At a basic level, social media presents opportunities to engage youth through the technology and apps they use frequently. Photos and posts online, through personal and agency-sponsored social media accounts, can suggest opportunities to participate in outdoor recreation activities, remind youth of the benefits of spending time in nature, or inform them of local resources. 

At a deeper level, social media messages can tap into youths’ motives to participate in outdoor recreation and physical activity. For example, if youths want to go outdoors to spend time with friends or for adventure, messages from peer groups, agencies and community leaders can tap into these motives. Agencies can support youths’ active and outdoor experiences by providing information on current recreation events and programs, on trailheads and hiking locations, or even facilitate finding friends with whom to participate. However, to foster behavior change through social media, an understanding of youth perceptions of nature and outdoor recreation is necessary to facilitate crafting posts and messages that resonate with their strongly held attitudes and motives. 

To gain this understanding, during the spring and summer of 2014, seven focus groups were conducted with 42 youths, ages 11–20 years old, primarily of Latino or African-American descent and from a densely populated urban area. They were asked about their motivations to experience nature and the outdoors and their use of technology, including which social media sites they frequent and why. 

Six key themes to help craft effective messages emerged from this exploratory study: (1) unique and novel experiences, (2) escape, (3) social connections, (4) challenge, (5) adventure and (6) achievement. Of these, the unique and novel experiences theme was most common across all focus groups. This theme represents the desire to do something unusual or different from their peers. Comments such as, “I like finding a lot of bugs…bugs that I don’t even know existed,” expressed youths’ desire to engage in “out-of-the-ordinary” activities that felt unexpected and unique. This theme was unsurprising given the volume of research that shows people like going outdoors to experience wonder and satisfy their curiosity.  

Escape from a range of stressors, such as school, city life and even technology, was another theme echoed across almost all focus groups. One participant said, “I always have this urge to want to get away, like, to get away from the city and to get away from the lights, and just to get away from it all.” Youth seemed to clearly understand the value of time in nature as a way to release stress. One shared: “Sometimes in school we have so much going on…but then when you’re outside, you just forget about it…that way you can escape…and most importantly with the people you like, like your family, and you could just experience the same thing.” It was surprising that although a quarter of youth are almost constantly online, they were also aware of the immense benefits of disconnecting from technology. “You just get tired of being on your phone a lot,” one participant stated. 

In addition to disconnecting from technology, youth viewed outdoor experiences as a chance to reconnect with family and friends. A social connections theme, which captured their appreciation of how the outdoors could facilitate social bonding, was illustrated with statements such as “You get to learn things…that you wouldn’t… at home,” and “When you are in nature, you get to bond with [people] more…have like a little picnic and…share thoughts and experiences.” Another participant noted, “Bringing my family to nature just really makes us grow as a family, because we get to bond with each other more than how we would in our homes. It’s a lot different.”    

Adventure, challenge and achievement were additional themes that captured youths’ motivations for seeking outdoor recreation experiences. They spoke of seeking excitement and adventure or doing something they never thought possible. They wanted to engage in a challenging activity and feel a sense of accomplishment. The adventure theme, for example, highlighted the excitement associated with exploration. As one participant explained, “Kids just like to go and have an adventure. They like to discover new things because there’s so many, like, wildlife out there, and they could say, ‘Oh, I want to discover this or see it in real life.’” 

Challenge meant doing something they didn’t think possible or, even better, something their friends had not achieved. “Everybody gets all competitive to beat each other at doing whatever it is they’re being challenged [to do],” one youth explained. And, they appreciated the sense of accomplishment that followed adventure and challenge. Achievement could be experienced several ways, and did not always entail completing a “grand feat.” It could be as simple, as one youth stated, as “when you go somewhere and you see like a waterfall or something. It feels like it’s a reward.” Bragging to their friends is another way youth experience achievement. For example, one youth described “like when we went to the snow and brought back pictures and were showing people. And they were like, ‘Oh, I want to do that next time.’”

Engaging Youth Via Social Media

Although using social media to inspire outdoor recreation activities and a connection with nature may seem counterintuitive to some, gaining youth attention is the first step toward engagement, and one plausible medium is technology. By building on youth interests — both in technology preferences and motivations for spending time in nature — park and recreation professionals can encourage participation in outdoor recreation–based youth programs and an appreciation for natural places. 

To effectively connect with youths, we recommend designing social media messages and marketing campaigns that consider the themes described herein. Furthermore, easy to understand access information (e.g., addresses, apps, transportation alternatives and routes) should accompany the messages to help convert youth interest into action. For example, a photo and an online post about reaching a peak (that taps into the themes of challenge and achievement) should be paired with links to trail maps and public transportation options. 

Combining themes in social media messages and campaigns — seeking adventure with family and friends for greater social interaction — can engage youth through the multiple motivations they express. For example, an agency might post information and photos on its social media sites to encourage youth to hike to a waterfall or unique natural feature, or to complete a novel challenge, such as geocaching with close friends or family. 

Finally, youth reported using multiple social media platforms, so park and recreation professionals should publish content on multiple sites and encourage youth to engage with their messages by creating and adding content. Youth created and shared content, such as comments or photos of accomplishments and social outings, may be one of the most powerful ways to ensure continued engagement with social media that in turn, encourages outdoor recreation participation and visits to natural areas. With effective planning and targeted use, social media has immense potential to engage youth in outdoor activities that enhance physical, social and mental well-being. 


Keri Schwab, Ph.D., Susan Houge Mackenzie, Ph.D., William W. Hendricks, Ph.D., Marni Goldenberg, Ph.D., Jerusha Greenwood, Ph.D., and Brian Greenwood, Ph.D., are faculty members in the Department of Experience Industry Management at California Polytechnic State University.Lindsey M. Higgins, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Agribusiness Department at California Polytechnic State University.




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