The other day as I scrolled through my Instagram feed, wasting my spare time in between classes, I noticed a National Geographic magazine cover (shown above) amongst the stream of Saturday’s tailgate and Oktoberfest photos. Beneath the cover was a brief description. National Geographic is looking for millennials to share photos of themselves at a national park or enjoying nature via #WilderNextGen.
The idea of social media connecting people to nature stuck with me throughout the day, so I later looked on National Geographic’s website for more information. I found an article written by Timothy Egan, where he shares an anecdote of exploring the Grand Canyon with his son Casey. The article contrasts how baby boomers and millennials experience nature, and expresses concerns about the future of national parks due to younger generations spending more time online than outdoors.
The Issue of Millennials
In the article, Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, directly addresses the issue of the declining popularity and preservation of national parks saying, “young people are more separated from the natural world than perhaps any generation before them.” He goes on to state that “there are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone.” The facts certainly seem to back up his claims with 71% of millennials stating that they would be “very uncomfortable” on a one-week vacation without connectivity (according to a survey by Destination Analysts) compared to only 33% of baby boomers. Another study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that young people spend more than seven hours a day on electronic media, and children 11 to 14 spend nearly twelve hours a day on electronic media.
Yes, millennials do spend (and waste) lots of time on social media and online. However, I think that advancement in technology has not hindered the youths interaction with nature, but simply changed how we choose to interact with it.
The Issue of Minorities
National parks are not only struggling to attract young people; they also have a problem of diversity. Nearly one in four Americans is under the age of 18 and half are racial or ethnic minorities. The typical park visitor is white and middle-aged or older. In 2013 only 24% of the population visited a national park. Of those visitors 21% were millennials, and 77% were white. Intuitively this makes sense though, since a large portion of millennials are growing up in urban environments with little exposure to national parks.
There is a prevalent and growing concern amongst baby boomers that our national parks are falling subject to corporate interests to develop infrastructure that will take away from the genuinely natural experience. Millennials would rather tuck into a warm and comfortable hotel bed with wifi than lie wrapped in a sleeping bag on the cold ground. This poses a problem for the future preservation of our land, since each generation is spending more time scrolling newsfeeds and less exploring nature. Our national parks need to do attract more millennials and minorities to parks to ensure their continued preservation. The National Park Service has decided to update their digial presence to reach out to all millenials, no matter race or ethnicity. They decided to begin using a constantly updated website and social media outreach. The article describes it best, “they decided to use screens to try to get young people off their screens.” By embrassing social media instead of condemning it, the National Parks Service was better able to reach it’s target audience and was rewarded with a record 307 million visits in 2015.
Saving the Parks
Although millennials are perceived as being detached from exploring the wilderness, I believe that social media has provided us ways to reconnect with nature. Personally, I grew up always wanting to be outside and playing sports with friends. I was late to get a phone and video game console when I was younger, so I wasn’t very familiar with social media or technology until high school. Thus, I have always felt passionately about making time for adventures and leisure outside. My love of the outdoors, paired with my interest in photography, have had a large impact on my social media use.
The three social media apps that I use the most are Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, which all incorporate photos. I use these apps to share my experiences with my friends. I love taking trips, both locally and internationally, to see and explore new parts of the world. Instagram is a prime example of a platform that allows users to share memories from a certain location with their followers. I find that the app allows millennials to connect with nature in a new and different way. Instagram and Facebook allow people to share their location in posts, and Snapchat’s uses geotags to share peoples location. I believe that sharing our location on social media excites other users to go out and explore. It also provides a valuable recommendation to our friends of nearby places worth visiting.
Below are a few examples of posts with various locations:
One day this summer I was looking for a good place to hike in the greater Boston area. When I searched online I found a laundry list of hikes of various lengths and difficulties, but none stood out as the obvious choice. I decided to consult Instagram to see if any of my friends had been hiking in the area recently. I quickly came across a post from a friend who had recently been to Breakheart Reservation, so I immediately texted him to get his first hand account. After hearing his high praise, I picked up another friend, and we headed out for the hike. Technology and social media enabled us to easily find a recommendation from a reliable source, so we could get the most out of our experience.
I think #WilderNextGen is a brilliant initiative that will reach out the more than 60 million people who follow National Geographic on Instagram. It will also create a space for millennials to share amongst themselves the best hidden gems to visit and explore. Additionally, I applaud Google for their recent work with the National Park Service. Together they have released interactive tours at multiple national parks, which allow you to virtually tour the locations with a guide. Unlike a traditional video however, you are free to look around in a 360° view of the park and move about each location at your own pace.
I believe that initiatives like #WilderNextGen and Google’s new tours of national parks, along with continued sharing over social media, will allow millennials to gain a greater appreciation for nature. There will always be those who seek to profit at the expense of nature and its resources, but if millennials are able to gain and pass on an affinity for exploring nature we will be able to preserve our national parks for many generations to come.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein
Shoutout to Collin Reik for letting me share his Instagram photos.