Study shows electronic devices undermine effect of resting in green spaces

By Karen Liu, Summer Editor-in-Chief

While electronic devices are making our lives easier in many different aspects, they have become constant stressors that take away from the time we dedicate to recover from mental fatigue, according to a recent study.

University professor and co-author of the study, William Sullivan, said being in a green setting in one of the best ways to decompress. However, the findings of the study show focusing on digital devices while taking a break will have the same impact on one’s ability to pay attention as not taking a break at all.

“In other words, if you are feeling mentally fatigued, don’t reach for your phone; take a walk in a green space,” Sullivan said in an email. “Taking a break in a restorative setting while using a laptop had the same impact on attentional functioning as taking no break at all.”

According to Sullivan, the team chose the topic of study because staying connected to the world through smartphones or laptop is nearly ubiquitous in cities, and university students spend a great deal of time paying attention to their phones and laptops.

“We thought there might be a cost to this high level of paying attention to our digital devices — that we would be slower to recover from the mental fatigue that is part of daily life,” Sullivan said.

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This is the first study to compare the combined effect of exposure to green landscape and the use of electronic devices on attentional functioning to the best of the team’s knowledge, Sullivan said.

The finding of the study can also be applied to landscape design.

He said it would be helpful if designers are challenged to create landscapes that pull people’s attention away from their phones. These landscapes would contain elements from the nature that grab and hold people’s attention, such as moving water, wildlife, fire or other natural elements that move and change, as opposed to a typical green space on a campus.

“At first glance, our findings suggest that design of physical spaces can hardly support attention enhancement if people pay attention to their smartphones,” Sullivan said. “But perhaps that notion underestimates the power of good design.”

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