By now, we’re all used to seeing mobile technologies and social media as a barrier to young people getting out into the physical world. “They’re always on screens and they never go out,” goes the refrain. I’ve often heard similar sentiments from teachers and support staff, but what if connected technologies and Tik Tok videos could in fact facilitate that exploration?
For the past year, I’ve been working with Outward Bound to explore how mobile technologies, including social media, influence young people’s adventurous residential experiences – experiences designed to challenge them and to build qualities like resilience, confidence and self-belief. I spent weeks at Outward Bound centres across the UK, working directly with individual school groups, participating in all their activities while observing, interviewing and recording data from the young participants and their teachers and instructors.
A portable comfort zone
One of my first observations was based on Outward Bound instructors telling me about the level of anxiety young people felt when they were either separated from their mobile phones or didn’t have Wi-Fi access. A lot of this anxiety was focused on the need to be able to contact parents, and it was clear that the anxiety was also felt by the parents themselves.
Additionally, however, young people expressed discomfort about being unable to maintain Snapchat ‘streaks’. It was common to see groups hanging out in the best signal areas on their phones and – in some cases – hiding their phones in order to be able to take them with them on adventures.
A facilitator of engagement
Interestingly, group chats on WhatsApp and Snapchat actually enabled groups of young people to engage with each other while they were on the same course; they shared photos from the trip and asked each other questions. These chats facilitated discussion around and engagement with the activities, albeit online rather than in person.
Instructors also used technology intentionally to engage young people in the planning of activities: interactive OS maps for example, helped those who otherwise weren’t engaged in an activity to read a map and navigate their routes. This was especially the case when planning expeditions where groups spent a night or more camping or “bivvying” away from the Outward Bound centre.
Equally, I observed young people actively relating the outdoors to their online lives. For example, during a campfire activity, the group were attempting to light their own small fires with cotton wool. The group discussion soon shifted to Minecraft and the group hurriedly debated how “this was much harder than on Minecraft” and how some Netherrack (a cheap Minecraft building block) would burn indefinitely if only they had some.
Other examples included young people trying to create “nature tattoos, just like on TikTok” with ferns, and I also saw on numerous occasions how Netflix series such as Squid Game and Stranger Things alter how young people are interacting with the natural world. In one case in a forest in North Wales, students started “digging for the upside down”, just like they had seen their favourite Strangers Things characters do on Netflix.
A mediator of learning
It’s clear from my research that mobile phones, gaming and social media can be a chief mediator of young people’s learning and – at times – their interactions with the real world. Young people are making sense of their day-to-day lives through what they see and do in online environments.
It’s far less clear that these technologies live up to the refrain that they are a barrier to exploration or even spending time outdoors. Indeed, my findings indicate that intentionally embedding technologies into our practices can encourage more of these things.
Instead of ruing the impression that young people are simply unable to put their phones down, helping them to develop better and more thoroughly understood boundaries between their online and offline worlds could turn out to be the best way to ensure they flourish in both – with resilience, confidence and self-belief.
[ENDNOTE] Part- and fully-funded places are available for students to attend Outward Bound courses. Teachers are encouraged to apply here.