Let's Stop Judging People for Using Phones Outdoors

Tech shaming has made us believe that the outdoor experience has to be pure or nothing. Here's why you should absolve your guilt about using your gadgets in nature.

Not long ago, I was talking to someone about running. This guy was a Runner with a capital R: devoted, meticulous, hardcore. He wore his identity on his sleeve, literally—I think I’ve only ever seen him in Tracksmith tees and singlets—and in the past, his opinion on the sport had been one I’d sought to validate my own. 

I mentioned how I’d gotten into listening to podcasts to help me slog through long, slow runs. The Runner scoffed. “You need that stuff to run?” he asked.

I found myself backpedaling, almost apologetic for listening to This American Life on a ten-miler rather than doing it sans distractions.

Days later, while lacing up for an hour-plus jog, I paused before grabbing my AirPods. 

His comment was making me question myself, but I was also questioning the assumption it was based on. Why was running in silence the right way? How did we determine that using technology to supplement, facilitate, or complement an outdoor activity was bad? And should I feel guilty about using it?

Tech Shaming Is Everywhere and It’s Bumming Us Out

“That is not something I’m ever going to apologize about.” 

This is Sarah Mary Cunningham, recalling a recent, difficult conversation she had about using her phone on a hike in New York’s Catskill Mountains. “I was talking to another hiker—a purist—and I said something about using AllTrails and texting on the trail. And he was like, ‘You should really be developing your inner compass, not looking at your phone,’” Cunningham remembers. 

The New York City music publicist is no greenhorn when it comes to the outdoors—she regularly hikes, kayaks, runs on trails, and is currently gunning for the Seven Summits (she’s bagged three so far). She told the man, “I’m a woman, and I’m going on this trail by myself—I look at AllTrails to see how that trail is mapped and to text my friend that I’m doing this trip and check in with her and let her know when I’m back at my car.” Was she staring at her phone the entire time? “No!” Cunningham laughs. “I’d be tripping over tree branches or roots.” 

The real burn to Cunningham, and to anyone who has been similarly judged for using technology outdoors, is the implication that if you need an app or a gadget to help you through a hike, jog, or any other activity, you’re somehow less of an outdoor person or athlete. 

Tech shaming has been our judgment du jour for years now. (As a recent Psychology Today story put it, “It’s popular these days—as it has been any time a new type of technology has become widely used—to talk about how ‘sad’ it is that so many people are on their phone or on social media rather than ‘really socializing with people.’”) But tech shaming has a uniquely prevalent position in the outdoors. 

We’ve all seen and heard the self-righteous and judgy looks, comments, and social-media posts about the way people use technology outside. (A quick Twitter search will yield gems like “It’s hella annoying when girls post pictures of when they’re hiking like get off ur phone and enjoy the beautiful view” and “‘We live in an era of smart phones and stupid people.’ I hate how true this is. Get off your fucking electronics and enjoy the outdoors!”) The ridicule has gotten so bad that, this year, the nonprofit organization Leave No Trace (which calls itself the Center for Outdoor Ethics) had to update its social-media guidelines to include “Shaming Is Not the Answer.” The group had noticed an increasing number of nasty comments with #LeaveNoTrace hashtags aimed at people who were obliviously using smartphones, cameras, and other gadgets in nature. 

At best, these judgments suck. At worst, they’re making people less likely to get outside. What’s more, those hardest hit by tech shaming are often newbies—people who are just dipping a toe into hiking, cycling, running, or backpacking and who may be more easily discouraged after hearing something like, “You need that?” These are also the folks who may benefit the most from tools like mapping apps and motivating music. 

So Why Do We Judge?

Almost always, someone who wears AirPods on a run, watches Netflix while camping, or hauls a selfie stick up the trail isn’t hurting anyone or detracting from someone else’s good time outside. There’s even some nascent evidence to show that they’re not detracting from their own good time. In a 2014 study from the University of Northern Colorado, 73 people—mostly hikers and campers—completed a questionnaire that gauged what effects, if any, technology use had on their enjoyment of outdoor experiences. The verdict: no matter how much technology people used, it had no bearing on how happy, relaxed, or satisfied they were with their outdoor experiences.

So why do we judge?

“There’s natural tribalism happening here. Anyone who does something a certain way will surround themselves with others who do something a certain way—and then, together, they protect that way,” says Brian Solis, a digital anthropologist and author of the 2019 book Lifescale, an instructional on how to live alongside technology. “Because of the cognitive biases that we all have, our way is the right way. It’s the same thing you see playing out in politics.”

Ironically, one reason why we feel comfortable policing others about their tech use stems from the insular worlds we’ve crafted for ourselves on social media, Solis adds. If it really pisses you off to pass someone on a hike who’s lost in his phone, and you air that grievance on Facebook, chances are your like-minded community will echo and amplify your beliefs, and you’ll double down on your anger. “We live in a highly emotional world that is charged by the nature of our technology—social media essentially converts us into accidental narcissists,” Solis says. 

Still, technology and judgments for using it are nothing new in the outdoors. (Thirty years ago, people were probably saying, “Hey, is that a Walkman? You’re running with a Walkman?”) “The truth is, it’s not just tech shaming. For as long as there’s been outdoor recreation, there’s been gatekeeping and some level of shaming,” says Ron Schneidermann, CEO of the navigational app AllTrails. “Whether it’s skiing, biking, hiking, climbing, surfing, hunting, even camping, there’s always someone who’s anointed himself—and let’s be real, it’s almost always a he—and made it his purpose to tell you that, if you don’t meet his standards, you don’t belong.” (Schneidermann has experienced his fair share of being tech-shamed while hiking and using his own app.)

What’s different about 2019—and why there’s no merrier bandwagon to ride than that of digital detox or the #offthegrid mantra—is that we’ve hit technological saturation in every corner of our lives. We spend 6.5 hours daily on the internet, the average office worker sends 40 work-related emails every day, and just try to think of the last time you went 24 hours without interacting with your phone. We’re over it! We want our peace in the outdoors! And we want everyone else to abide that, too. 

The problem is that some people have become so wedded to the idea of the outdoors as a haven away from digital demands that even seeing a smartphone in the wilderness or witnessing someone carrying an iPad on a beach can feel disruptive, says Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University who has spent more than 15 years digging into the science of what drives our emotions. “My guess is that most of these people are not consciously aware of it, but when they see someone holding a phone [outside] somewhere, they think, You just reminded me of all these things I have to do,” says Kashdan. “You reminded me of all these tasks that I have disbanded for a short period of time to go out into nature, so to some degree, you’re pissing me off.”

But the fact that this happens is another symptom of our overall state of confusion about the role technology should play in our lives, says Cal Newport, a computer-science professor at Georgetown University. Newport writes about the intersection of technology and culture and the question of how much tech is too much in his new book, Digital Minimalism. “If you’ve decided that your time outside is when you get away from [tech], it’s kind of like a Band-Aid cure to the bigger problem,” he says. In other words, if the only way you can get mental space away from technology is by physically separating yourself from it—making the outdoors your no-screen zone, for instance—then you’re probably using too much tech in the first place. (Not to mention that fulfilling your need for a digital catharsis is an awful lot of pressure to put on Mother Nature.) This is basically the premise of Newport’s book, in which he gives a handy, accessible guide to help you weed technology from your everyday life. 

Of course, there’s a difference between getting pissed off that someone’s wearing headphones on a run or using a smartphone to navigate a trail and feeling that way when someone’s flying a drone over your campsite or blasting music to every hiker on the mountain. The latter, invasive kind of digital interruptions, are becoming more and more common. Yet even in the eyes of Leave No Trace, there’s no clear rule on what shouldn’t be used or how. 

“I think this can be frustrating for some people, because we’re not saying, ‘This or that,’” says Dana Watts, executive director at Leave No Trace. What it comes down to is pretty basic, Watts says: draw the line at what might reasonably impede someone else’s experience. 

Technology Can Be an Outdoor Enhancer

What often goes missing in the debate about using technology in nature is just how much better our devices can make the experiences. Tech can seamlessly complement and amplify our adventures, workouts, and even the inspiration we get from armchair-viewing incredible outdoor pursuits. 

Take, for instance, the apps and programs that allow us to identify constellations, planets, and star clusters in the night sky, birds in the forest, rocks and minerals in canyons, and trees, plants, and flowers (and what’s edible and not). These tools make our time outside more engaging and deepen our knowledge. And recent research conducted on children—our most impressionable, attention-challenged demographic—indicate that the screens don’t distract us from the natural world. In one 2017 study, Canadian researchers created a nature app for wetland, tropical-garden, and prairie-grassland parks, then randomly assigned 747 kids to three different groups. One group toured the parks using the app, one listened to a guide, and the third read a paper map. Afterward the children were asked questions to determine how engaged they were with nature, how much information they had retained, and how much they enjoyed the overall experience. The app was just as effective at connecting the kids to nature as traditional methods, and, the researchers noted, the kids thought it was a lot more fun.

Modern technology has also smashed a basic barrier for many new enthusiasts: finding the way. Navigational apps like AllTrails and MTB Project not only help people find fresh routes to explore—which is fun on its own—but they guide them down trails that previously required having an in-the-know friend, a gatekeeping effect. Apps like these opened up more of the wilderness to everyone.

There’s also a crucial safety element to consider: many apps, including Cairn and Noonlight, offer SOS alerts that users can activate to send messages to their loved ones or rescue crews in case of emergency. And of course, just having a phone on you means you can call for help or, if you’re lost, navigate back to your home or vehicle (assuming service is available, naturally). Such basic, vital features are probably part of the reason a 2017 nationwide survey from Brigham Young University found that 95 percent of people prefer to hike with their smartphones. (However, one flip side of all this bears noting: some people say that running with earbuds is unsafe, when passing others or for simple awareness.)

Furthermore, from a social-media perspective, shooting photos and video footage for Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok is how a ton of people celebrate being outside and encourage others to get outdoors, too. The latter is working, particularly for millennials; as the Seattle Times noted in 2018: “Nationally, interest in hiking has doubled among those 18 to 34, surging from a participation rate of 15 percent in 2008 to 30 percent last year.” The Times article attributed the surge, in large part, to “the Instagram effect,” pointing to data from Nielsen that said hikers are 43 percent more likely than nonhikers to have used Instagram in the past 30 days. And in contrast to the popular belief that whipping out your phone to snap pics on a hike takes you out of the moment, research from the American Psychological Association found that taking photos can actually increase your enjoyment of the experience. Researchers reason that when you’re thinking about what image you want to capture, you’re engaging and connecting even more with your surroundings. 

There’s also an inclusion benefit: social media has created an opportunity to widen and deepen the outdoor community, helping everyone feel more welcome and have more fun. This has been true for Cunningham, the Seven Summit seeker. “My favorite Instagram account in the world right now is that guy Pattie Gonia who does drag in the outdoors to raise attention for self-love and the LGBTQ+ community,” she says. “Or Unlikely Hikers. It’s everyone from people of color, to people who are plus-size, to people who are differently abled.” That representation has been bolstered thanks to people recreating outside on their phones. 

And for those who regularly get out and sweat in nature, consider the science showing that donning earbuds to listen to music can vastly improve workouts. One 2012 study from Keele University in England found that queueing our favorite songs can help us achieve a flow state, particularly during training; the music helps us drone out any nagging mental doubts and dial in to an efficient exercise groove that makes the work feel less hard, improves our performance, and boosts our enjoyment of the activity.

Even the inspiration we get from top outdoor athletes to tackle new adventures has been brought to us with the help of technology. Look at professional alpinists Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards. When the duo made summit attempts of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen in 2016 and 2017, they documented each challenge, setback, and eventual victory via Snapchat, with the hashtag #EverestNoFilter. Their photos, video messages, and real-time updates—which also appeared on Facebook, Instagram, Strava, and YouTube—made for gripping storytelling and a passenger-side view of climbing the world’s highest peak that few had seen before. Thanks to it, amateur mountaineers had fresh motivation to pursue their own epics.

With these myriad benefits, the traditional premise that outdoor recreation is best experienced with only your own senses, sans phones, screens, and gadgets, seems deeply outdated. 

You Don’t Always Need Nature to Get Away

Science does show us that the outdoor purists are absolutely right about one thing: experiencing solitude is vital. 

“Take every moment that you’re listening to something, reading something, reacting with something on a phone—that puts your brain in a highly artificial state that tends to make people frazzled and anxious,” says Newport, the digital-minimalism expert. There’s a great advantage to spending moments free of input from others on a regular basis, he says. This is what solitude actually is: time spent with only your own thoughts and the stimuli from the world around you. Moments like these help cut any anxiety you may have and are the kind of operating mode our brains feel most comfortable in, Newport says.

This is likely why taking time away from our screens feels so therapeutic and why the outdoors—a place with its own inherently fascinating and calming stimuli and a space that naturally evokes contemplation—is such a good spot to create a state of solitude. And maybe this is what gives the most ardent outdoor gatekeepers an involuntary twitch when they see the selfie stick emerge from a kayak or watch an iPad light up around the campfire. “What people may be thinking is: the only time to get the benefit of solitude is when you’re outdoors—so don’t waste it,” Newport says. “But in actuality, you have more flexibility than you would suspect.” 

We don’t have to be perched on a quiet peak alone at sunset to tap into this solitude. We can find these moments anywhere, doing anything. “People often mistakenly attribute solitude to requiring physical isolation, but that has nothing to do with it,” Newport says. “It could happen just as easily in line in a store, in the coffee shop, in a subway car. That can be just as valuable as on the trail. There’s nothing particularly privileged about being outdoors for solitude.”

I gazed out my back-porch window, thinking about all of that, alone with my thoughts, for a good long while this morning. Then I put in my AirPods and went outside for a run.

Illustration by Michael Parkin/Folio Art

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