The benefits of phone-free outdoor experiences

by Lucy Carver

Nature is a powerful leveller and in an age of digital distractions we believe it is also an antidote to the addictive behaviour that devices bring out in our youth. Our preliminary research shows that most of our participants value the social and health benefits that being phone free in outdoor environments provide.

The clear call of the korimako. 

The steady rhythm of waves on the beach. 

The soft crackle of a campfire. 

Notably absent from these sounds is the clamour of an alarm clock, the interference of a phone call and the ping ping ping of notifications. 

The use of phones, or rather, the lack of phone use, is often a key challenge for participants on Whenua Iti programmes. These tamariki and rangatahi are digital natives and phone use is as second nature to them as is eating and sleeping. So why leave phones behind when heading into the bush, or up a mountain, or onto the water? 

Participants with heavy packs walk over boulders in a valley floor

Aotearoa Adventure participants venture down the Hukere Stream, Nelson Lakes

World leading addiction expert Professor Anna Lembke says our smartphones are turning us into dopamine addicts¹. “We have transformed the world into one of overwhelming abundance, and yet surveys seem to indicate we’ve never been less happy,” she says. “We’ve been conditioned to have a little mini spike in dopamine when we hear an alert, and we can very quickly get into a vicious cycle of addiction.” Lembke says that abstinence can reset the balance of the brain.  

Nature is a powerful leveller and adventuring in te taiao (nature) without devices allows participants to be present with their surroundings; the environment, their peers, and their own learning process. Time and time again, our instructors find that this uninterrupted experience deepens the opportunity for social connection, connection to nature and participant wellbeing.  

In a recent survey (2023) of 48 participants from four of our Trades Academy programmes, 70% of participants agreed that being without their phone helped them to better connect with nature and the outdoors while 63% agreed that having a break from their phone was good for their health and wellbeing, with a further 17% undecided. One participant recounts, “I genuinely really enjoyed being disconnected, it really helped me take a break from other things happening outside of camp – like a little sanctuary.” 

In the same survey, 67% of participants agreed that being without their phone helped them to connect socially with the other people on the programme. “The digital detox really added so much more to the bonds that we all forged over the week together,” said a Waka Journey participant. 

While the survey noted that listening to music and the inability to take photos were reasons for missing a device, we hedge that this is a worthy trade-off, and one that most participants endorse, since “being without the phone helped not distract me so I could connect more with my peers and nature. Please keep the no phone rule!!” 

¹Anna Lembke, MD, is professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic. Her latest book, a New York Times bestseller, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, explores the interconnection between pain and pleasure in the brain and helps to explain addictive behaviours – including to our smart phones. You can listen to her 2021 RNZ interview here: How our smartphones are turning us into dopamine junkies.

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