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The Real Cost of ‘Virtual Nature’

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Can robotic replicas and digital imagery inspire children to a love of nature?

By Brenda Scott Royce Posted Mar 11, 2009

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that children today spend far more time engaged in electronic media than experiencing nature. (With the average American child “plugged in” for six hours each day, how much time could possibly be left for outdoor play?) What is stunning, however, is that absolutely anybody thinks this is a good thing.

Welcome to L.A., where animal activists advocate replacing zoo elephants with robotic replicas — and argue that these Dumbo-droids will have the same educational and inspirational impact as the real deal.


In August, PETA announced its desire to buy Sea World and replace Shamu and friends with “virtual marine mammals,” and now similar groups are proposing that the Los Angeles Zoo’s partially constructed Asian elephant habitat be scrapped and replaced with an animatronic display or IMAX film. I have no doubt that children can be entertained by a herd of electronic elephants or a school of simulated swordfish. But seeing such creatures would likely inspire fascination with the robotic technology, rather than curiosity about, or compassion for, the animals themselves.

So far Anheuser-Busch, owner of Sea World, hasn’t taken PETA up on their offer to digitize Shamu, but in L.A., at least one member of City Council is trumpeting the virtues of virtual technology.

“Kids are a lot more advanced now than they were when we were growing up,” Councilwoman Jan Perry said in December, addressing the issue of whether elephants should remain at the L.A. Zoo. “They watch Animal Planet, they look on the Internet, they do live feeds in their classroom … they have access to experiences that we may not have had when we were growing up, and they seem perfectly comfortable with it, in a way that maybe we don’t understand. So maybe we need to listen to them, too.”

With all due respect to Councilwoman Perry, the fact that our children seem “perfectly comfortable” with the gradual replacement of nature with virtual reality is not a good thing.

In his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv cites numerous studies documenting children’s declining participation in outdoor activities and the resultant rise in obesity, depression, anxiety, and learning deficits. The need to nurture kids’ connection to nature is most acute in urban settings, where parental fears of strangers and traffic pose major obstacles to outdoor play.

Admittedly, a zoo visit won’t achieve the same level of impact as an African safari, but for the vast majority of us, viewing elephants and other exotic animals in their ever-shrinking native habitat is not possible. That’s where accredited zoos and aquariums serve a vital role, providing a window on the larger world, a bridge between youth and nature, a safe and accessible way for children to see the wonders of the animal kingdom with their own eyes.

Like most busy parents, I’m guilty of relying too heavily at times on technology to entertain and educate my kids. After all, it’s easier to pop in a DVD about whales than to take them whale-watching, and far more convenient to show them online images of the Grand Canyon than to plan and execute an actual road trip. But I strive to ensure that such virtual explorations remain an adjunct to, rather than a replacement for, actual outdoor experiences. No DVD or video game or webcam can hold a candle to Mother Nature — in all her three-dimensional glory — in terms of emotional and educational impact.

The argument that artificial animals can have the same impact as real ones is refuted by a 2007 study in the Journal of Developmental Processes, which investigated the costs and benefits of “virtual nature,” defined as “nature experienced vicariously through electronic means.” The authors found that accessing virtual nature “appears to reduce direct contact with nature,” whereas in-person experiences are vitally important to both child development and conservation:

If children experience Old Faithful primarily through a webcam, where is the nurturing connection that in the past was provided by the sharing the experience with family or an adult mentor? … From a conservation context, will they still go to see it in real life? Will they still pay their tax dollars to maintain Yellowstone?

The more kids “experience” the wonders of the natural world via virtual channels, the more they’ll take it for granted. As successive generations become progressively more disconnected to nature, who will notice when it disappears? Who will care?

Some argue that children don’t need to see animals in the flesh in order to care about them. But even the staunchest critics of zoos can likely trace their own love of animals to a personal interaction with a live creature, rather than a transformational moment sitting at a computer terminal. I cannot fathom the next generation of Jane Goodalls and Ian Douglas-Hamiltons crediting CGI chimpanzees or animatronic elephants with fanning the flames of their environmental action.

Louv quotes environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr., a champion of ocean preservation, who said: “It’s the oceans, not the Internet.” What will inspire L.A.’s young people to became stewards of their environment and to work toward the conservation of wildlife and wild places? To paraphrase Kennedy, “it’s the elephants, not the Internet.”

by Brenda Scott Royce

Related pages:

Kids and Camping
How to get your child excited about nature
No Child Left Inside
Backyard Wildlife Habitat
Parent/Child Activities

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  • Sonja-Sophie

    Just wondering, if we did ask the animals how they feel about it, they'd probably prefer NOT to be caged in….
    I agree that it is great seeing animals live, but oftentimes that is a selfish instinct – ohhh, I WANT TO SEE THIS ANIMAL, who's live is nothing like it would be in the wild…. There is no easy answer, but giving up a little of what we want CAN actually be a good thing for the planet and it's creatures, so don't dicard this idea out of sheer selfishness. Viewing animals who are in a rescue station for instance, could be a win-win, while training Shamu to do things he's rather not is, well, kind of selfish on our part.

    • Greg Seaman

      Great comments Sonja-Sophie.

  • Nature

    There is total emotional distance to the virtual world. All deaths and violence while playing video games are completely discounted for by kids. It separates them from the consequences of their action. They intuitively understand them to be not real. Similarly virtual nature is dead, not alive. They need to interact with living things and life. Also there is always this non-uniqueness to recorded events, because they can be played anytime, repeatedly and anywhere. There is no here and now. The real interaction is unique in so many ways and aspects that it is impossible to describe or recreate, it is only experienced.

    • Yes, you say it so well. In nature, moments are fleeting, experiences unique, discoveries unending.

  • Jo Dee Craigmile

    How can you replace the love of a one on one relationship with a living, breathing, intelligent being, with a robot, or video. I would Much rather share the hug I had from my elephant, that I could physically return. I can not begin to express the honor, the overwhelming joy, of being held by such a ponderous, and loving exchange with God’s most ponderous creatures. Ask Jane Goodall about her first interaction, out in the field, without protection, without cages and bars. Ask Ian Douglas about his experiences, and his firsts. Now try to impart that interpersonal, that across species communication. This, I believe, is our next step to meeting extraterrestrial intelligence. This personal experience. You can’t get it thru a video game.

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