by Luke Ryan
When I look back at my own childhood, the memories are often coated in a fug of boredom. I think back to afternoons spent following my mother around the antique showrooms she loved so much, or being stuck in my father’s medical office for hours, waiting for him to finish his ward rounds so he could take me home. These experiences always felt like moments of exquisite cruelty, designed specifically to leave me dulled. Yet when I burrow further into those memories, I remember a different aspect, too: the fantastical Narnias I discovered behind those dusty old cupboards; the strange words and mind-bending concepts I tried to piece together from my dad’s books and journals. This was the inevitable flipside to boredom, the feeling that the world had layers far beyond what I’d previously encountered.
“Twenty minutes is about all it normally takes for a child to find something to entertain themselves,” says social psychologist Dr Helen Street. “Which can feel like an eternity when your child is whining and unhappy, but, given time, children will always find something to do.” Street is the founder of Positive Schools, an organisation dedicated to helping schools nurture kids’ wellbeing and creativity. One of her biggest crusades is for the reclamation of unstructured space in children’s schedules, so that they have time and opportunity to let their minds roam. Basically: let kids be bored.
“I think there’s a real problem with too much structured teaching and entertaining of young children,” she tells me. “We’re starting formal education at a younger age and seeing that as an opportunity to do structured education, as opposed to an opportunity to encourage young people to be creative, learn some social skills, engage with others and simply play.”
Although much maligned, boredom is one of humanity’s defining traits. Since the birth of written history, we’ve been complaining about being bored—the Roman philosopher Seneca talked about boredom as a form of nausea, and the huge amount of graffiti preserved from those days suggests that teenagers have long been tormented by the same impulses. But it’s a neural impulse that’s evolved for a reason. Boredom prompts us to seek out new experiences and ideas. It’s a mental state that allows for deeper and more creative thinking, even as it sets up the conditions for depression, addiction and ennui. From an evolutionary perspective, boredom is the reason that we keep on moving, keep on searching for new resources, new mates, new lands. Without it, we’d be prone to stagnation, and therefore less able to respond to a changing environment.
These trends are even more prevalent in our children—both in the scale and burden of the boredom, and in its importance to their wellbeing. “For children, the feeling of boredom is essentially a sense of frustration that they aren’t engaged in something,” explains Street. “It’s a sense of helplessness. That declaration of ‘I’m bored’—they’re saying, ‘Help me engage and connect.’” For years, boredom has had a bad reputation among parents and educators, thanks to studies that suggested that being bored was correlated with frustration and anhedonia—an inability to feel pleasure. Certainly, the results of bored children and teenagers can be destructive, both to themselves and to the property and people around them.
But it’s important to draw a distinction between boredom as an affliction or a marker of depression and the more constructive boredom that most children feel—and that it’s possible to cultivate in your child. In 1993, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips noted, “It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests them. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.” For children, boredom isn’t necessarily coupled with emptiness. It’s coupled with inquisitiveness, a need to discover or to create in order to fill the nothing moments in their lives. It is the very motivator of play.
For parents, embracing boredom means taking a step back and finding ways to facilitate a child’s own efforts to rectify their restlessness, rather than simply solving the problem for them. “It’s an easy fix to just give your child something that semi-structures them, like watching TV or an iPad, or directing them in something to do,” says Street. “But the problem with that is that if we are directed in our behaviour, or given things to do, we’re far less likely to stay engaged for a sustainable amount of time, or to be truly enamoured with what we’re doing.”
Indeed, working too hard to tame a child’s boredom can exacerbate the problem as they grow older and require more and more stimulation to achieve the same amount of distraction. “We know that, fundamentally, wellbeing is associated with our ability to be creative and engage and connect with the things we do in life and the people who matter to us. And if we have not learnt to do that, if we’ve not learnt to be self-determined, then we can be more likely to struggle with our wellbeing. And I think that is a significant factor in terms of the crisis we’re currently seeing in young people’s mental health.”
Of course, this is a discussion that’s impossible to have without acknowledging the sleek, black-and-grey elephant in the room: our smartphones and tablets. A recent study by the University of Iowa showed that half of one-year-olds surveyed were able to use a tablet computer, while the figure climbed to 90 per cent by the time children were two. In Australia, four-year-olds on average spend more than two hours every day glued to their screens, while a survey of Western Australian families conducted in 2016 showed that for children aged five to twelve, the average time spent looking at electronic devices was twenty-two hours per week. You can now buy prams with iPad holders on the front. Few innovations in the history of humanity have had such a rapid and unexpected impact on the way our children live—yet we’re still not entirely sure what effects it might be having on their development. It’s perhaps telling that Steve Jobs, the man who invented the iPad, didn’t let his own children use one.
So, how exactly are we supposed to balance these concerns with the base realities of the technological age in which we live? That’s where Dr Joanne Orlando, an early childhood researcher with the University of Western Sydney, comes in. An expert in the evolving relationship between children and technology, Orlando is keenly aware of both the power and perils of these new devices—and their inescapability. “We can’t ignore that technology is now a part of kids’ playthings. It could almost go in the toy box, but it’d be the only toy they’d ever play with. There are so many different aspects to these devices that it’s almost a toy box in itself.”
In general, Orlando sees no issue with children using screens, as long as the substance of these interactions is being actively curated and limited. “One of the best things to come out of technology is that we actually get to see how smart kids are. You see children talking into Siri and getting information, or making websites, or creating music and art, and it’s kind of awe-inspiring.”
But the key is to ensure that the way children are using their devices is productive. “A lot of parents find their kids can use technology better than they do, so they get a bit worried that they don’t know how to guide their kids. The big thing I always advise parents to do is to make screen time a shared experience. Parents will do lots of things with their kids, but there’s often a presumption that using computers is a solitary exercise. But you can play games, research things, make art, and so much more, together.”
However, even Orlando worries about the increasing omnipresence of these devices. “One of the things that has begun to concern me,” she says, “is that we know kids love technology, and we know that it makes them quiet and calm, so there’s this tendency now to use it as a bit of a babysitter.” She cites a study in the journal Pediatrics that found three-quarters of parents in a particular English community were using screens to actively placate or distract children as young as one. In another study, the rates were shown to be even higher for children with pre-existing behavioural issues. “We might think of it as digital sedation.”
She goes on: “It works in the short term, for sure. But if it keeps happening, there are a lot of missed opportunities for the child to develop their language skills, and it can produce issues in a child’s ability to connect with their parents. If you keep giving the child your mobile, it sends a pretty strong message to ‘keep quiet and stay out of my way’.”
Street is even more emphatic on this point. “We need to avoid relying on technology as a babysitting device or as a quick fix. I think we underestimate how addictive it is for ourselves, as well as our children. And it’s having a drastic impact on our ability to take time to engage in things. We’ve all become far more impatient. Unable to spend more than a minute considering something. Always wondering what we could do next.”
“The results are unequivocal. We’re looking at somewhere between 1-in-6 and 1-in-4 young people with a mental health issue. When you look at kids’ self-reports of their levels of wellbeing, we’re seeing 1-in-4 saying they’re distressed or severely distressed. That’s really alarming.”
For Street, the need to erect firm boundaries around screen time is paramount. “Children under two should have no screen time whatsoever. That means no time on the iPad or Mum’s phone or even the TV. That doesn’t mean they won’t be technologically competent when they’re older. It’s quite the reverse, because they’ll learn more in terms of their own creativity.” For pre-school and school age children, Street agrees with Orlando that it’s about putting limits on the time that kids spend with screens, and becoming aware of how they’re using them. “Technology is here to stay, so parents need to become aware of what apps and programs are out there, and to exert control over how they’re being used.”
This isn’t simply a challenge for our kids. It’s a challenge for us, addicted just as surely to the enemies of boredom, just as ready to use our screens to distract and pacify ourselves, to give our thoughts easy rails in the face of uncertainty. As far back as the ’70s, studies were being done into how young children respond to the faces of their parents. When the parent wore a blank, unresponsive face—like we do when we’re scrolling through Facebook—children became agitated and distressed, in the end demanding even more stimulation than normal. This has been backed up by more recent research that suggested parents offered 20 per cent fewer verbal cues and 39 per cent fewer non-verbal cues to their children while using their smartphone. The result: increasing unruliness and agitation from children pleading for attention. None of this is to say that we need to strip our devices from our and our children’s lives, but that we have to become more aware of how these fonts of stimulation change the way we engage with the world.
We can also see the rise of the devices as the next point of progression in our long-standing war against children’s idle time. Long gone are the days when kids would roam the neighbourhood unsupervised and be home in time for dinner. As ‘good parents’, we’re increasingly compelled to keep our kids active and engaged at all times. This is the crux of the matter for Street: “We have to change our understanding of play. Parents need to realise that play is really, really important. It’s not just time out from life. Play is vital to developing emotional regulation, social skills and so much more. If you don’t have freeform symbolic play where you pretend a cardboard box is a castle, you don’t develop logically to a degree to where you can then understand the broader symbolism of things like maths and language.”
The problem is that play in this sense is messy. It doesn’t respect busy schedules, relentless emails or tidy homes. But that’s the whole point, says Street. “Being a good parent doesn’t mean that you have to provide entertainment for your children at all times, because that’s certainly not the case.” She recommends having a space in your home filled with recyclable, mouldable and breakable materials, where kids can be messy and creative and leave their creations behind when they’re done, and then come back to them when they’re ready. “Giving your children the opportunity to get bored and find their own way forward is so, so important—for you and for them.”
This, then, might be the crux of a child’s boredom: it’s an invitation for parents to do and worry less. To renew their faith in the incredible, evolving brain in their child’s head. To look at the world with fresh eyes and see in the mundane the wonder and mystery of new things. To see a dusty old cupboard and wonder what fantastical lands might be waiting within. And there’s nothing boring about that.