Time spent near trees—even in a city—can boost teens’ mental health

Teens largely continue to struggle with their mental health ever since the pandemic, but there’s a new way parents may be able to help… think of it as a whole new way to “go green.”

Forest bathing—being outside among the trees while breathing deeply and experiencing the calm that comes with it—is known to lift our moods. The benefits aren’t as accessible if you live in an urban area, though.

According to a new study, adolescents had reduced anxiety when they spent time in natural spaces. In other words, head to your local parks if you live in a city (or even just enjoy lunch on a patio with some greenery nearby)—because they may be good for your kiddo’s mental health.

“While the findings may not be surprising to most people, what’s significant is that for the first time, we’re able to specifically say this is how much anxiety is reduced when kids are by a park as opposed to by a city center,” said Leia Minaker, PhD, associate professor in planning and director of the Future Cities Initiative at University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The study was the first of its kind to evaluate real-time survey data from adolescents about their emotional responses to various urban environments. The team recorded what the children had to say about being in transit hubs, streets, on trails, in parks, and near waterways.

Natural urban spaces were consistently related to significantly higher scores in positive outcomes for the teens. In fact, when they looked at a lake in an urban area for two to three minutes, their scores on an anxiety scale went down by 9%. Scores went 13% higher when the teens were standing downtown for the same period of time.

The researchers adjusted the data to take into consideration other factors like gender, age, ethnicity, social status, and whether or not the individual had a diagnosed mental health disorder. The results were largely the same.

Even nature-like motifs or patterns on buildings in addition to landscaping elements, as well as gardens and trees, gave the youth positive emotional experiences.

Urban characteristics are unique to adolescents, because they may interpret them differently compared to adults. For instance, an adult may be more likely to jog or walk in a green space, but youth spend more time hanging out there.

The authors hope that city planners and builders use their data to advocate for natural urban design features, even when the project doesn’t come to designing, or redesigning, a park. Planners can also ask teens what they’d like to see in designs, the authors said.

“Teens are frequently excluded from any kind of decision about the cities they live in,” Dr. Minaker said. “It’s important to get their opinions and quantify their experiences because childhood experiences influence many long-term health and disease outcomes.”

The researchers aren’t finished looking at mental health in teens as it relates to their environment. They want to follow teens to explore long-term economic and social impacts, and plan to evaluate the mental and physical health of kids living in high-rise apartment buildings.

The takeaway for you, mama: Encourage your teen to find a green space or nature-inspired setting they can go to near home. (And not just only in the summer when it’s balmy.)

Spending time there may be just the thing your teen needs to help them face any mental health challenge. And if you get to spend that quality time with them too, all the better.

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