Summer brings sunshine, pool time, camping trips, backyard barbecues, and ice cream. It also brings an uninvited guest… boredom. As adults we cringe when we hear kids say they are bored. We feel pressured to entertain. We feel overwhelmed trying to think of new distractions. We feel annoyed when we hear the complaining. It seems the easiest way to quiet the pangs of boredom is with the ultimate silencer: screen time. And what’s the harm in that? After all, many of the games kids play can be educational. I would agree that technology and screen time can be valuable, but it also has some unintended consequences. And while boredom seems a nuisance we need to extinguish, it actually has some powerful benefits.
The Risk of Too Much Screen
The tricky thing about screen time is that while it seems we are interacting with something actively, it is actually more of a passive activity for our brains. In terms of executive functioning there is limited opportunity to engage.
In simple terms, executive functioning is made up of all of our higher level thinking processes. It includes our ability to plan a task and see it through to completion, organize and categorize information, communicate across different brain pathways, filter important and unimportant information, anticipate consequences, and reduce impulsive behaviors. Just like our muscles, the more we work these cognitive structures the stronger they get and the more automatic these processes become.
When we fill ample free time with screens, we risk leaving these neurological muscles underdeveloped. This can translate into social struggles, learning struggles, and behavior struggles. Screen time without the balance of boredom can increase impulsive behavior and decrease attention span, frustration tolerance, and the ability to work toward a goal.
The Opportunities of Boredom
In contrast, boredom creates a magical opportunity to engage executive functioning skills. As a result there is a wide range of benefits:
- We learn more about ourselves and what we like, which builds our self-esteem.
- We learn how to exist in an uncomfortable emotion until it passes or find a tool that helps us through it, which builds emotional regulation skills.
- We engage the creative and imaginative centers of our brain which are paramount for effective problem solving.
- We make connections as we observe our environment and become more curious about how things work which increases intrinsic motivation to learn.
- We experience a deep sense of calm in stillness and give our minds and bodies a chance to recharge. This increases frustration tolerance and our ability to stay calm in difficult situations.
- We increase our attention span and our ability to focus for longer periods of time.
Things are much different for kids today, than when I grew up. Just take a summer road trip for example. When I was a child, I watched the world pass by outside the window and became curious about the places I saw and wanted to learn more about them. I watched the clouds in the sky and let my imagination run free picturing them as mythical creatures or exotic animals and wrote stories about them in my head. I engaged in conversations with my siblings and parents and my relationships with them grew stronger. We played games in the car and laughed and told jokes. We had fights and made amends and learned how to accept one another even with our annoying habits. Today we are more likely to turn on a DVD in the car or retreat to handheld device to combat boredom in the car. It’s not necessarily bad to do that, but when we do, we miss out on so many opportunities.
I challenge everyone this summer to just sit with boredom without a screen and see what comes of it. Do this yourself and encourage your kids to do this as well. Boredom is not a bad word. Boredom is beautiful!