Is screen time ruining our kids? How one Utah nonprofit is getting teens outside and off screens

ST. GEORGE — “Our kids are spending too much time on screens.”

For Southern Utah resident Matt Mizukawa, that statement is nothing new.

For at least a decade, he has been reading and studying the research regarding the amount of time children spend on screens and how it affects them – teens in particular.

Washington and Iron county students participate in a skiing and snowboarding event with Get Outside Utah, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of Get Outside Utah, St. George News

Now he is doing something about it.

Mizukawa is the president and co-founder of the Southern Utah-based nonprofit Get Outside Utah, which he and his wife Julie Mizukawa started in 2018 to provide access to the outdoors for teens.

Mizukawa said he first became interested in the research about screen time and the physical and mental effects it has on children in 2010 as an oral surgery resident at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

He was doing a rotation in pediatric anesthesia, he said, when a colleague presented him a medical research article which estimated the amount of screen time children and teens were consuming on a daily basis.

The numbers were crazy, Mizukawa said, as the article estimated teens were spending over seven hours a day on some form of screen, be it a computer, phone or television.

“When I first read that, I thought that is impossible, that’s crazy,” he said, adding that he started thinking about what the long-term effects of that much screen time would be or look like as children and teens grew into adulthood.

A promotional video for Get Outside Utah can be seen at the start of this article.

“It’s just incredible amounts of time that kids, and I will add to this, adults, are just absorbing and taking in,” Mizukawa said.

And the numbers didn’t improve over the years, he said.

Today, according to a 2019 Washington Post article, on average, American children ages 8-12 spend just shy of five hours a day on screens. For teenagers, that number increases to around seven to eight hours a day. Those numbers are independent of the time they use screens in school or for homework.

As for the mental and physical effects, too much time spent on a device has been shown in numerous studies to be linked to lower thinking and language scores on tests, lower focus, lower psychological well-being, poorer social skills and higher rates of anxiety and depression.

An April 2019 article in Psychology Today said the following:

Most researchers acknowledge the dopaminergic impact of screen time – screen time use leads to the release of dopamine similar to the way drugs like cocaine impact the brain. This has led to alarm regarding the long-term impact of increased screen time use (including time on phones, tablets, video games, and TV). These changes in the brain can result in reduced attention, memory difficulties and changes in our ability to think, read, and write at a deep level.

“So now, years later, we’re starting to see what a lot those effects are, not just on our physical health but on our mental health as well,” Mizukawa said.

While it still may be too early to tell whether too much screen time has permanent long-term effects on the brain – years of research is still necessary – sedentary acts like sitting in front of a screen are linked to higher rates of obesity among kids and adults that can lead to larger health issues such as sleep problems and diabetes.

As Matt Mizuakawa dove into the negative impact of screen time, he also studied the research behind what is known as “nature therapy,” or the positive effects of getting outside.

Get Outside logo. | Image courtesy of Get Outside Utah, St. George News

What he found was that, in direct opposition to screens, the outdoors can have a profound positive effect on both the mental and physical health of a child.

Research from The National Center for Biotechnology Information, a part of the United States National Library of Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health seems to back up Mizukawa’s assertion.

“The positive effects of nature exposure include improved cognitive functioning (including increased concentration, greater attention capacities, and higher academic performance), better motor coordination, reduced stress levels, increased social interaction with adults and other children, and improved social skills,” the research said.

With the evidence mounting against excessive screen use and with their own kids becoming older, Mizukawa and his wife decided they needed to do something about it.

Enter Get Outside Utah.

Get Outside is a nonprofit with a threefold mission, Julie Mizuakawa said: The first is to get kids outside. The second is to get kids outside themselves. The third is to get kids outside their comfort zone.

The idea behind it started, she said, at home.

“The outdoors has been a place that we (she and her husband) could always go to receive some respite,” Julie Mizuakawa said, adding that they would bring their kids along and hike, camp, rock climb and anywhere that would get them outside and away from the technology-driven world they were increasingly a part of.

But the Mizukawas didn’t stop with just their family. Despite all their work and family responsibilities and not knowing anything about how to start a nonprofit, they created Get Outside Utah.

Get kids outside

The premise of the nonprofit is simple. Give kids the opportunity to get outside.

Julie Mizuakawa said that her husband felt really strongly that even though it wouldn’t fix every problem with screen use, they needed to address it in the best way they knew how.

Washington and Iron county students participate in a lake day event with Get Outside Utah at Sand Hollow State Park, Hurricane, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Get Outside Utah, St. George News

To that end, Get Outside Utah has an organized club inside every high school in Washington and Iron counties, Julie Mizukawa said. Along with that comes access to an advisor that helps steer the students to different activities that are organized through the individual clubs.

Ideally, Matt Mizukawa said, each individual high school club hosts their own monthly outdoor activities. Additionally, the nonprofit organizes larger events like rock climbing, mountain biking, lake days, snowboarding and other activities a few times a year which are open to all the schools.

Events that have been held this year have included an organized trip to Brian Head Ski Resort and a boating activity at Sand Hollow State Park. The group also has a climbing activity planned for this month.

One of the important things about Get Outside Utah, the Mizukawas said, is that it allows teens who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate, to try new activities like skiing or snowboarding or mountain biking or climbing.

The nonprofit’s website has identified three factors which are barriers to outdoor access for many, including lack of funding, education and opportunity. With that in mind, though the clubs are open to anyone, Get Outside hopes to target those from lower socioeconomic groups, minorities and women who are looking for opportunities in the outdoors.

And their efforts are working.

Get Outside Utah Director Holly Avery, who is also the dedicated advisor for the Crimson Cliffs High School club said that interest in the club is high.

“They’re just so excited about it,” Avery said, adding that she is equally excited about how the nonprofit is breaking down barriers to the outdoors.

Get kids outside of themselves

Participants in a Get Outside Utah activity volunteer at the St. George Marathon, St. George, Utah, Oct. 5, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Get Outside Utah, St. George News

Part of the threefold mission of Get Outside Utah is to help get kids outside of themselves, Julie Mizukawa said.

In order to fulfill that part of the mission, the group has organized volunteer activities that include cleaning up local trails, volunteering at an aid station for the 2019 St. George Marathon and other service-oriented activities.

Another component of that is making friends and connections from outside their own schools as they participate in the larger group activities.

“One of the really fun things about the outdoors is being able to spend time with friends and also meet new friends,” Matt Mizukawa said.

Get kids out of their comfort zones

At the most recent boating activity, many of the kids who participated had never even been on a boat, much less a wakeboard, Matt Mizukawa said.

That is true for many of the activities, including the trip to Brian Head where most of the participants had never tried skiing or snowboarding before.

“We want them to push themselves a bit and do things that they think are hard,” Julie Mizukawa said.

For Avery, that is one of the most rewarding parts of being involved with Get Outside Utah.

“It’s fun to watch the kids get out and try something they’ve never done before and become successful,” Avery said.

That success is due in large part to community volunteers, many of whom are experts in their outdoor fields, who have embraced Get Outside’s vision and gone above and beyond to support the nonprofit’s efforts, donating their time, talents and equipment in order to help others learn to appreciate nature.

“Really we’re just having cheerleaders come for these kids to teach them how to do it and be there for them,” Avery said, adding that the exhilaration the kids are experiencing when they find success is powerful.

As the young nonprofit looks to the future, Matt Mizukawa said their first goal is to give as many kids as possible in Southern Utah the opportunity to participate.

“We really want to get these clubs active and get as many kids as want to have the opportunities, you know, get them out and recreating,” he said.

After that, Mizukawa said they have been approached and are considering expanding the program across the state.

“I think that an ultimate goal for Get Outside is not just to be in Southern Utah, but to provide these opportunities for all Utah kids,” he said.

For more information about Get Outside Utah, including how to participate, volunteer and donate, visit their website, Instagram or Facebook page.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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