How many times have you heard the familiar refrain, “I’m bored!”? If it seems frustratingly frequent these days, you’re not alone. Recent studies have found that the teenage attention span is shrinking. Digital devices promise endless entertainment and connection, but the fast pace and information overload seem to be leading to more boredom, not less. According to writer Taylor Lorenz, “Whereas previous generations may have scrolled through channels on the radio… or flicked through countless TV channels, today’s teens say they’ll sometimes open and close up to 20-30 apps, hoping that something, anything, will catch their attention.”
As bothersome as boredom can be to kids and parents alike, researchers say it has real benefits, especially for teens. When it’s understood and managed, boredom can boost brain connectivity, serve as a catalyst for positive change, and even motivate teens to reach their goals. With a little reframing, your teen can learn to navigate boredom and reap its rewards.
Five Types of Boredom
Boredom comes in five flavors, according to educational researcher Dr. Thomas Goetz and his team. When they studied boredom among high school and college students, they found the following:
- Indifferent boredom is the feeling of being disconnected from the external world, calm, and relaxed. Teens often experience this kind of boredom as “downtime.” It’s not necessarily negative.
- Calibrating boredom is less pleasant. This is when teens are aware that they’re bored and are open to change, but aren’t yet motivated to do anything about it. The discomfort builds until calibrating boredom becomes…
- Searching boredom: Teens become restless and frustrated and set out in search of something stimulating. If they don’t find something, searching boredom can turn into…
- Reactant boredom. Higher levels of arousal and discomfort can lead teens to act out, blame others, or attempt an “escape” from surrounding circumstances.
- Apathetic boredom is the fifth type and the most troubling, because it’s marked by feelings of depression and helplessness to change the situation.
Understanding the build-up of boredom helps teens and parents address it before it turns reactant or apathetic. The first three stages are where boredom’s secret strengths are found.
Boredom boosts brain connectivity
Researchers consider the downtime of indifferent boredom to be essential for accessing the brain’s default mode, a set of structures associated with mind-wandering, daydreaming, and creativity. When the default mode is active, regions of the brain begin to work together in new and different ways, stimulating innovation and problem solving. According to Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, “This is when… our best, more original ideas get gestating, because we dip into profound and hidden reservoirs of emotion, memory, and thought. Many areas of the brain are lit up as we bring together past, present, and future to imagine entirely new realms and ways to do things.”
Ensure that your teen gets time to daydream by setting limits on screen time, making sure they’re not overscheduled, and setting a good example so they know that downtime is an important part of self-care.
Boredom is a catalyst for change
When too much downtime leads to discomfort, teens often turn their insights into inventive action. It may take a while, though, for them to realize they can change a situation. Calibrating and searching boredom provide the motivation to explore their options and reach outside their comfort zone. One mom we spoke to drew a direct line between her 16-year-old son’s super-boring summer and his decision to get a part-time job. “He realized that playing video games all day was not actually that enjoyable, and he complained about being bored for weeks. Then he suddenly decided to apply for a job at a supermarket. Now he’s working, he’s made a bunch of new friends, and he’s saving up to help buy his first car. I don’t think he would have even considered getting a job if he hadn’t been so bored first.”
Help your teen recognize that the discomfort of boredom can be fuel for finding fulfillment. And since the teenage brain doesn’t always make the most responsible decisions about how to handle boredom, parents can also set guardrails to steer kids towards positive pursuits.
Boredom builds executive function skills
Executive function includes problem solving, organization, and planning, skills teens need to set and work towards their goals. Recent research has found that boredom helps teens build executive function skills by motivating them to think about and plan for the future. Psychologists Shane W. Bench and Heather C. Lench say boredom’s purpose is “to encourage people to seek new goals and experiences.” Beyond motivation, boredom also stimulates autobiographical planning, or mapping out certain steps to reach a desired outcome. When teens are bored, they are more likely to notice the contrast between where they are and where they want to be, and then plan the steps needed to get closer to their goal.
Support your teen by asking them clarifying questions to help them see their big picture goals and the steps it might take to get there. Offer support and encouragement, but let them lead the way.
The next time you hear, “I’m bored!” consider how you can help your teen embrace boredom instead of looking for an immediate escape. With these new perspectives in mind, boredom could become the first step of their next big adventure.