New study pinpoints when teenagers fall out of love with nature

4 July 2019

Young people’s connection to nature drops sharply from the age of 11 and doesn’t recover until they are 30 – with significant implications for their engagement with pro-environmental behaviours like recycling or buying eco-friendly products.

These are the findings of a new study from the University of Derby, in partnership with the University of Exeter, Natural England, Historic England, the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and The Wildlife Trusts.

The study, led by Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University, analysed survey responses from almost 4,000 adults and children. Participants rated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the following statements, to determine their level of nature connectedness:

  1. I always find beauty in nature
  2. I always treat nature with respect
  3. Being in nature makes me very happy
  4. Spending time in nature is very important to me
  5. I find being in nature really amazing
  6. I feel part of nature

This allowed researchers to develop a Nature Connectedness Index (NCI), running from zero to a maximum score of 100. The data revealed some key insights:

The research also provided insight into how strong nature connectedness needs to be to deliver the pro-environmental benefits required for a sustainable future. The most straightforward behaviour, recycling, was associated with an NCI of 63, just above the population average, whereas the NCI of the 5% of people who gave up their time to volunteer to help the environment was 76.

Professor Richardson said: “There are a number of possible reasons for teenagers’ dip in nature connectedness. Adolescence sees the move from primary to secondary school and is a time of many developmental changes, including the emotional regulation required for successful social relationships and the development of self-identity. Previous studies have shown that greater interest in the self, such as through 'selfie taking', is linked to lower nature connectedness. It may be that during this time of change, one’s connection with nature loses relevance and importance.

“The critical global issues of climate change and biodiversity loss suggest a failing relationship between people and the rest of nature. There is growing interest in understanding and improving people’s connection to nature, and a need for a new and sustainable relationship that benefits the natural world as well as human wellbeing.

“Time is tight. The data suggests a mean NCI above 70 is a minimum required to help deliver a sustainable future. That’s at least 15% above the current average of 61, with a 25% increase to 76 associated with the meaningful attitudes and behaviours that would make a sustainable future more likely. With the right approach, nature connectedness can be increased, but ways to reach non-nature lovers are urgently needed.”

Read the full study here.

The University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group, led by Professor Richardson, was the first in the country to focus on people’s sense of their relationship with the natural world, and how this can influence their wellbeing and conservation behaviours. The group’s work was named by Made At Uni as one of the UK’s 100 best breakthroughs for its significant impact on people’s everyday lives.

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