WiFi Coming to a National Park Near You: What to Do?

On April 29th, as I scanned the news, I was surprised and a little disappointed to see the headline, “WiFi Hotspots Coming to Canadian Parks“. I’m not a wilderness adventurer nor much of a camper (I camped for the first time in my 20s and only a handful of times since). My surprise and reaction was not based on a sense that my personal experience would necessarily be compromised. Instead, it was based on my understanding of the value of getting away from it all, the solitude that is available in these spaces, and the benefits of experiencing the natural environment and communing with nature. I did become curious about how those who are regular users saw this decision/opportunity interacting with their experience in parks.

WiFi in Canadian National Parks

Shortly after noon April 29th, the CBC shared an online article that captured its readers’ perspectives and reactions to the original posted piece. I’ve pulled a few to include here, but the article has many more if you’re interested. The first reaction speaks to the role of technology in contemporary lifestyles:

parks wifi reaction1

Another CBC reader suggested that perhaps we need to see the WiFi issue as an opportunity. It is available, but we don’t have to use it.

park wifi reaction2

This is a fair point. If, however, we consider the perspective of this next user, WiFi’s availability in National Parks may not be as simple as making your own choice to use or not use it. WiFi in National Parks could create user conflict by negatively impacting or interfering with the experiences of others.

User Conflict in Parks WiFi

The fact that some people have suggested that simply “turning your WiFi off” is the solution suggests that we may need to do a bit more to educate park users about the impact of their behaviour, including technology behaviour, on others. One article titled, “Don’t Want WiFi in Parks? Don’t Use It” raised the issue of self control (a good point – we need to teach and learn about how to manage technology in our lives). While useful to consider, self-control with regards to personal use of technology doesn’t account for how the technology use of others might affect our experiences.

I did happen to have an opportunity to hear from a local municipal recreation practitioner this week who commented that her understanding was that Parks Canada felt it needed to be more “relevant”. This seemed to reflect what Andrew Campbell, Director of Visitor Experience with Parks Canada said in his response to the negative reactions. There seems to be a need to attract younger people to the Parks and to meet the demand of potential park users who wanted to be connected. I do think it is unfortunate that it may take WiFi at visitor’s centres and campgrounds to attract the younger generations as well as those who may feel they can’t leave their work or social networks behind.

Meeting this “demand” for WiFi serves as a caution. I worry that this signals how difficult a task it is to educate people about the value and benefits of solitude and nature; how difficult it is to ignite interest in nature and motivate engagement in and use of our National Parks; and how difficult it is to for people to disconnect (from work or their social lives) even in the midst of the most natural, pure, protected environments.

In the face of these challenges, I want to offer some “food for thought” as you consider how to interact in natural spaces where you have WiFi available.

Solitude:

National Parks offer opportunities for solitude. Even if you are on a family experience, there may be opportunities to venture away from your group to experience solitude. Researchers (Long, Seburn, Averill, and Moore, 2003) found solitude to be a source of spirituality (defined as a sense of transcending everyday concerns and being in harmony with the natural order) and one that is more likely to be experienced in the natural environment (67%), as opposed to in public buildings (10%) or at home (23%). It is possible that WiFi use could disrupt solitude or make it more difficult to grab the opportunity for solitude.

Getting Away From It All:

Garst, Williams, and Roggenbuck (2009) found that camping experiences offered campers that opportunity for rest and restoration and escape. The attraction for campers was getting away for aspects of their home environment such as the phone and a schedule. WiFi, if available and too hard to resist, could mean that escape is not possible and restoration (reduction in stress, arousal, anxiety) may be compromised.

Improving Family Cohesion:

Researcher on campers have found that family functioning and cohesion can be improved within a camping context (Garst et al., 2009; Hornig, 2005). A participant from Garst et al.’s study offered, “When we’re camping there’s no TV. We talk more. We talk, sit around and just talk. You communicate a little better . . . get a little closer maybe. When you’re camping you’re all in one little tiny box and you get close” (p. 97-98). If a goal of visiting a National Park is to have shared family time, foster relationship building, and create memories, it may be important to think about how WiFi may affect that and consider boundaries that could be set to ensure that the opportunity for family bonding is not adversely affect (e.g., only 15 minutes a day of facebook, only connecting to WiFi twice during the week-long camping excursion; no tech during the family camping experience; use WiFi to “Google” something you saw or experienced to learn more).

Children’s Learning:

This was another theme from Garst et al.’s (2009) study. Children engaged in forest camping experience had the chance to develop knowledge and learn new skills. Parents saw the camping opportunity as a chance for their children to learn to play, to be creative, to enjoy the outdoors, and to appreciate nature. In some cases, a nature experience and doing without the modern conveniences may be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable initially. However, parents saw value in the learning that occurred and the appreciation of nature that was fostered. Again, WiFi and bringing along technological devices on a camping trip might contribute to some children resorting to their more familiar or comfortable behaviours. Again, setting boundaries could be helpful here.

My hope is that Parks Canada is going to monitor the impact of WiFi on users – perhaps a bit of research to be done to understand how those who use WiFi experience the parks as well as those who do not, but who are in spaces with park users who are on WiFi. And, I urge Parks Canada goers to think consciously about: 1) the value of a nature-based experience and what is being sought from that experience; 2) the opportunity National Parks offer to disconnect from social media and work while connecting with family or friends during while camping or visiting the park; 3) how technology can be used to enhance the experience (e.g., using devices for geocaching) without compromising some of the identified benefits (e.g., solitude, family bonding) and opportunities (e.g., learning).

References:

Garst, B. A., Williams, D. R., & Roggenbuck, J. W. (2009). Exploring early twenty-first century developed forest camping experiences and meanings. Leisure Sciences, 32(1), 90-107,

Hinds, J., & Sparks, P. (2009). Investigating environmental identity, well-being, and meaning. Ecopsychology, 1, 181–186.

Hornig, E. F. (2005). Bringing family back to the park. Parks & Recreation, 40(7), 47–50.

Long, C. R., Seburn, M., Averill, J. R., & More, T. A. (2003). Solitude experiences: Varieties, settings, and individual differences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 578–583.

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