One of the most common complaints we hear from parents is that their children are addicted to technology: smart phones, tablets, computers, TV, and video games. This is a huge topic, and I’ll have more to say about it later. For now, I’d like to address just two pieces of this puzzle: being bored and being alone.
We’re not very good at being bored, which, it turns out, is a brand-new problem. For the vast majority of human history, life moved at a slower pace. There was a lot less to stimulate us, and there was a lot less pressure to always be doing something. Culture and technology have changed so fast that our old brain isn’t well adapted to the modern world.
Our culture teaches that to be bored is bad. Our culture teaches that we should always be taking action or at least entertaining ourselves in some way. It used to be normal to sit on the bus and do nothing. Now you look weird if you’re not tapping away at your phone.
Modern technology makes it possible to be constantly stimulated, such that we can fill a single day with more stimulation than a hunter-gatherer could get in a month. As a result, we’re often overstimulated. Many people recognize that this is unhelpful, yet few people are able to change their behavior. The technology we have at our fingertips is an ever-present temptation, so it’s understandably difficult to resist.
But we need to resist. People are spending less and less time speaking to one another and more and more time staring at their phones. Many people feel a compulsion to surf the internet any moment they’re not being entertained by whatever’s happening right in front of them. The art of conversation and the ability to patiently wait for what’s next are being lost.
Furthermore, by never allowing ourselves downtime without stimulation, we’re missing out on the automatic subconscious learning that happens when we allow our brains to rest.1 Students need to pause and process what they’re learning during study sessions.1 Facebook is not the type of pause that allows for subconscious processing. YouTube isn’t either. These sorts of things are too engaging to free up the brainpower needed for deep learning.1
Being bored isn’t bad; it’s necessary.
Our culture also teaches that being alone is bad. Our culture teaches that we should always be interacting with people. That’s what cool people do, after all.
Brian Johnson points out that by using “time-outs” as punishment, we’re conditioning children to think of alone time as a bad thing. Hence, it’s no surprise that many people feel compelled to check social media, email, or text whenever they’re alone.
Our culture rewards extraverts and pretends that introverts are a weird, lonely minority. In fact, introverts make up fully half of the population.2 Actually, no one is completely introverted or extraverted; everyone falls on a spectrum, but those who lean towards introversion are made to feel like there’s something wrong with them.2
We routinely ignore the fundamental strength of introverts, which is the comfort they have with being alone.2
Ironically, introverts are better at socializing than extraverts are at being alone.2 This is because extraverts often have no idea how to handle being alone. Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, says that while we generally do a good job teaching children social skills, we don’t teach “solitude skills.”2
A smartphone provides a crutch that serves as a substitute for solitude skills. The untrained extravert can use his phone to reach out to others when he should be practicing being by himself. By using this crutch, he’ll never develop comfort with really being alone, and this will make it harder for him to do the things that successful students do, such as spending three hours studying at the library.
As I said at the start, parents frequently complain about their tech-addicted children. Unfortunately, adults are just as prone to tech-addiction. To improve the relationship your children have with technology, there is probably nothing more important to do than to model healthy behavior yourself.
Granted, it’s much less common for adults to use their spare moments to play video games and check social media, but that turns out to be irrelevant. Even if you’re using your smartphone to be productive – replying to work emails, managing your calendar, updating your grocery list, etc. – you’re still hooked, you’re still missing out on the benefits of downtime, and most importantly, you’re still modeling tech-addiction for your children. Children don’t see tech-use as work; they see it as play.
Resist the impulse to check your phone. The internet can wait. Show your children that it’s okay to just sit. Take a moment to relax and do nothing. Sit, breathe, observe, and think. A moment without stimulation or activity is an opportunity for a microbreak; it’s a chance to rest and recover. Children will never learn these behaviors if adults don’t lead by example. It’s up to you to show your family the way.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
2 Helgoe, Laurie. Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength. Sourcebooks, 2008.
Title Image: Sara. “We wait. We are bored.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Image cropped, text added.
Cell Phones in the Waiting Area: Kasimov, Boris. “Me, myself and my cellphone.”https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Image cropped.