Editor’s Note: Using technology to bridge the gap between kids and the outdoors

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By Andrew Johnson, Outdoor Forum Editor —

In mid-July my son and I were driving home from his baseball tournament along some back roads when I spotted a whitetail buck wading through a soybean field. The setting sun cast a warming glow on the buck’s reddish summer coat of hair, causing it to stand out in stark contrast to the dark green sea of soybean leaves.

I pulled the car over to the side of the oil road and grabbed the binoculars off my dash to have a closer look. The buck wasn’t more than 100 yards away, but it didn’t seem to mind the attention.

“Gavin, take a look,” I said, trying to pass my 12-year-old son the binoculars. “His rack is only half-grown, but you can tell by fall he’ll be a dandy.”

“Just a minute,” he said, his thumbs racing across the surface of his smartphone. “I’m texting a picture of the buck to my friends.”

Indoor Migration

Like many people, my son is easily distracted — consumed even — by technology and the ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any point in time. At times he seems hypnotized by the screen.

I’ve enabled this behavior. So has his mother. So have his friends. So has the way he learns in school. Heck, even church has helped drive his eyes to a screen, as bulletins, the words to hymns and songs, and even Bible verses are now projected on chapel walls every Sunday morning. Paper is an inconvenience.

While there are numerous side effects of being addicted to technology, one that often goes unnoticed is the fact it’s driving more and more people inside. In fact, it could easily be argued that this migration indoors, which has been accelerated by the advent of digital media, is one of the largest transitions in human history. As a result, participation in outdoor sports — primarily hunting and fishing — is declining at an alarming rate, especially among younger generations.

Statistics from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department clearly show that Baby Boomers currently make up the largest demographic of people who hunt and fish in South Dakota, a trend that’s consistent nationwide. The sad reality is that as this generation ages out of participating in outdoor recreation, not enough youth are being recruited into the fold to make up the difference — and you don’t have to look far to find examples.

In Minnesota, the number of fishing licenses sold this year is down more than 41,000 licenses, or 4.8 percent, from the same time last year, according to recent data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In South Dakota, GFP license sales show that as of July 8 there have been 8,400 fewer fishing licenses, both resident and nonresident, sold compared to this time last year. In addition, 1,817 fewer combination (hunting and fishing) licenses have been sold this year.

Even in places where the hunting heritage is seemingly strong, such as Aberdeen, S.D., there seems to be declining interest. This spring, for example, 92 youth participated in the April and May Brown County HuntSAFE courses in Aberdeen. While that might seem like a healthy number, it’s actually 50 fewer students than average for those same courses from just three years ago.

Bridging the Gap

Through the years I’ve used outdoor adventures as a way of proving to my kids that there’s more to life than what’s displayed on a 5-inch screen. As part of this effort, any time we went fishing or hunting I used to force the kids to leave their phones or tablets at home.

I looked it as a way to free them from their electronics. They looked at it as punishment.

So, I started thinking about ways to integrate the responsible and appropriate use of technology into our outdoor endeavors, and for the past year or so I’ve actually encouraged my kids to bring their phones along. I’ve taught them how to use technology as a tool, just as I’ve taught them how to use other outdoor tools like shotguns, bows and fishing poles.

For example, we bought a T-Pod Sonarphone from Vexilar, which is a castable, floating sonar device about the size of a baseball. When that thing hits the water, it relays incredibly detailed depth and fish-finding information back to a smartphone via its own WiFi signal. The kids love it, and it keeps them interested and focused even when the fish aren’t biting.

Last fall I taught Gavin how to read the GPS-enabled hunting atlas on the SDGFP Outdoors app that he downloaded to his phone, and he acted as chief navigator on pheasant hunts as we hopped between public hunting areas. He was also in charge of gathering weather reports while planning trips, and I’ve encouraged him to keep digital memos of the day’s events as a way of journaling.

More importantly, having his phone along allowed him to instantly message his mother, his friends and even his grandfather minutes after killing his very first pheasant. What’s more, the photo we took of him holding his first bird was the screen saver on his phone for several months after the fact.

This whole process has been a learning experience for me, too. I once blamed technology and the digital age for driving a wedge between younger generations and the outdoors. However, these recent experiences with my children have proved to me that leveraging the power of technology can not only help introduce more kids to the outdoors, but it can also keep them interested.

In time I hope my children’s eyes look up more than down, but for now I’ll take what I can get, using technology to bridge the widening gap between them and the outdoors.

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