Video Games Favored over National Parks?

A new study shows that there has been a sharp decline in the percentage of Americans visiting national parks. The authors aren't sure what's causing it, but it may be related to the increasing use of video games.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Vacationing in a national park used to be a rite of passage for Americans. An actor named Ronald Reagan put it this way in 1962.

President RONALD REAGAN (Former U.S. President): This heritage of splendor belongs to our children, to the generations of the future, on down the years for decades and centuries to come.

YDSTIE: Unfortunately, the percentage of Americans who actually visit national parks has fallen sharply in recent years.

NPR's John Nielsen has more.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

National parks from Yellowstone to the Everglades are no less crowded than they used to be, but Oliver Pergams, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that fact hides a disturbing trend. As the nation's population has grown, more and more people have been skipping their park vacations. From an all-time high of 1.2 trips per person per year in 1987, the per capita average for park visits fell to 0.9 in 2003.

Professor OLIVER PERGAMS (Professor of Conservation Biology, University of Illinois at Chicago): It's a drop from the highs of about 25 percent or so.

NIELSEN: Pergams and a colleague, Patricia Zeredek(ph), of Bryn Mawr College looked for the cause of this decline, seeking a trend that rose as the park curb fell. Zeredek says the list of possible explanations seemed endless at first.

Ms. PATRICIA ZEREDEK (Bryn Mawr College): Maybe the median family income has decreased. Maybe the number of vacation days has decreased. Maybe they're going to exotic locales in foreign countries.

NIELSEN: But none of those theories came close to fitting when the yearly numbers were plotted. Neither did slightly weirder hypotheses, including one that linked declining park trips to the growth of extreme sports like bungee jumping. Rising gas prices were a partial fit but Pergams and Zeredek had a hunch that there was something else going on here. Something that would have first appeared in the mid to late 1980s and then grown like crazy. Pergams says the answer hit him when he saw what his kids were playing with one day.

(Soundbite of buzzers, electronic whistles)

NIELSEN: Video games, the Internet, movies you can watch at home. Statistically, it was a prefect fit.

Prof. PERGAMS: The average person in the U.S. spent 327 hours more per year on these media in 2003 than they did in 1987, which is a huge increase. It's, you know, almost an hour a day.

NIELSEN: Now, Pergams is the first to say that he hasn't proven anything. Correlations, even strong ones, sometimes end up meaning nothing. Then again, he notes that excessive use of video games has been linked to childhood obesity.

Prof. PERGAMS: So, we think it likely, you know, that these kind of increases in sedentary lifestyles and recreation not only effect how much time people have to go to national parks but how much they want to go to national parks, how much time they want to be outside and be physically active.

NIELSEN: Critics of what Pergams calls his nature versus Nintendo hypothesis dismiss it as a case of old folks yearning for the old days. But Richard Louv, author of the book, Last Child in the Woods, says he doesn't think that's right.

Mr. RICHARD LOUV (Author, Last Child In the Woods): We're talking about a change that involves all of human history and prehistory in which children went outside and spend much of if not most of their developing years either working or playing in nature. And within the matter of two or three decades in Western society, we're seeing the diminishment perhaps the disappearance, virtually, of that.

NIELSEN: This is a change that's bound to have enormous implications both for kids and parks. Louv says it worries him that nobody knows exactly what these implications will be.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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