The Art of Boredom: Rediscovering Creativity and Connection in a Digital World 

Teenage boys looking at their phones.

Good and bad most often come mixed together. An unruly child may have incredible drive and an insatiable curiosity. The student who talks out of turn also knows how to sustain conversation and keep others entertained. A good teacher trains students to harness the productive aspects of their personalities without indulging in harmful extremes. What is true about students and personalities is equally valid for cell phones. Cell phones allow us to find answers quickly, but sometimes the answers are inaccurate. Cell phones bridge the gap of distance and time between friends and family, but they also tempt us to escape the reality around us for the pleasures of games and instant gratification. Cell phones make communication easy and (ironically) authentic relationships more difficult. 

Instead of joining the chorus of dismay over the adverse effects of cell phones, this post will praise the good and jettison the bad. And we will try to offer practical ways to do so. 

The Root of All Evil 

Kirkaguard famously wrote in his philosophical work Either/Or that “Boredom is the root of all evil.” Most cell phone users would cry a hearty “hear, hear” in affirmation. Because of cell phones, the younger generations are the first generations in human history who do not have to fight boredom. When they feel the tentacles of torpidity approaching, they can press a button and banish boredom. Before phones, students had to find ways to amuse themselves, and boredom was a taskmaster who compelled people to use creativity and ponder their world. Yet Maria Popova writes, “Boredom is not only an adaptive emotion but a vital one — with its related faculties of contemplation, solitude, and stillness, it is essential for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, for art and science in equal measure.” I write this to explain why cell phones are both great and challenging. Banishing boredom is a powerful but dangerous tool, and teaching a child to use a phone is like teaching a child to use power tools, sledgehammers – the heavy stuff – for the first time. It is good to show them the dangers of the phone; they must also be shown the beauty and joy available off-screen. Helping our students become exposed to these options may help them to face up to boredom and confront it with healthy or productive activities—athletics, sewing, photography, board games, wiffle ball, pencil drawing, etc. Students may grow from encounters with boredom. 

Taste and See 

Learning to use any tool—especially a cell phone—is a discipline that requires helpful tips and tactics. Employing these tips will help a child use their phone better. Here are a few strategies: 

  • Cap cell phone use for less than two hours a day. Studies have shown that negative self-image and emotions correlate with cell phone use over two hours daily. 
  • The APA suggests children reduce their screen time by 25% at first and slowly whittle away at that time to make them more and more comfortable with less and less time. 
  • Get the whole family involved. Students and adults report having trouble with cell phone use. Teachers and parents should also practice what they preach and use moderation with their cell phones. Families, teachers, and students can set reasonable expectations and phone management strategies for homes and classrooms. 
  • Let nature be your guide. Because of the harmful effects of blue light exposure at night on circadian rhythms, mood, and sleep, choose a family-wide cell phone stop time before bed. 
  • Just like regular resting is good for the body, planned rests from cell phones are healthy for the mind. Regularly taking a day off the phone could help break any sense of dependency. 

However, these strategies will only be helpful if we can help students experience the benefits of idle time alone with thoughts and creativity. Otherwise, when boredom settles, students will reach for phones. Asaduzzaman Khan, the lead author in a recent and significant international study on cell phone use, argues, “If we want to improve kids’ mental health, we need to target both behaviors—to minimize screen time and maximize physical activity,” says Khan. “If we are targeting just one behavior, then it might be a missed opportunity.” His study shows the relationship between physical activity and a healthy relationship with a cell phone. But it also gives parents and teachers a general principle: don’t just pull the cell phones away but also push students toward physical activities, creative play, outdoor exploration, and group interaction. Plan it, model it, and do it with them. Guidelines are good, but tour guides are better; to break negative cell phone habits, students benefit when parents and caregivers encourage and experience the good stuff in life with them. 

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting.

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