I recently published Boring People Lead Boring Lives, which discussed how passive entertainment stunts leisure skill development. I also wrote about the dangers of boredom:
Boredom proneness is dangerous. It's associated with increased feelings of aggression (Rupp & Vodanovich, 1997; Dahen, 20004), anger, substance abuse (Rupp & Vodanovich, 1997), procrastination (Vodanovich & Rupp, 1999), shyness (Maroldo, 1986), coronary-prone and Type-A behavior (Kass & Vodanovich, 1990), depression, anxiety (Ahmed, 1990; Vodanovich, Verner & Gilbride, 1991) and low self-actualization (Vodanovich & Rupp, 1999).
A few weeks ago, I flew to the East Coast. As I was flipping through the in-flight magazine, I noticed a page with pictures of the airline's different planes. The four-year-old in the seat next to me asked, "What's that?"
"Those are all the airplanes you can fly on," I told her.
"Which one is the one we're on?"
"Well, which one do you think we're on?" She didn't answer -- it was a tricky question for a preschooler. So I asked another question to help her out. "Do you think we're on... this one?"
She pointed and started counting, "One, two, three, four....seven, eight. It only has eight windows."
"And how many does our airplane have?"
"Right! So it's probably not this one, either, huh? Okay... What other clues can we use to figure out what airplane we're on?"
Her eyes twinkled as they darted from the pictures in the magazine to real-life clues on the airplane. Her lips scrunched and unscrunched. Her eyebrows furrowed. She muttered to herself, while looking at the image of the 747, "I don't think there's an upstairs... I don't see a staircase..."
Around this point, the girl's dad handed her an iPad, but she wasn't interested. So he turned it on and picked out a movie for her. Then he told her to watch it -- in the same way that I tell my dog, "Ruby, drink your water," even when she isn't actually thirsty. Because that's the routine. Lead the dog to water, try to make it drink.
Lead the child to a mobile device... try to make it stare, click and swipe.
It made me sad. There was this wonderful little girl, and her little wheels were turning. She was solving a mystery! Exploring the inside of an airplane. And then... bleh.
It's not good for kids to be entertained. Unstructured play teaches them how to entertain themselves. It causes them to look up, to ask questions and talk more. In turn, they learn language skills and develop social and emotional intelligence. It allows them to make observations and ask questions about the world around them. It fosters their curiosity and creativity.
And it's not just true for children. It's also true for grown-ups.
This was two years ago. I still smile when I think about it.
This sort of interaction used to be a lot more common than it is now. Like, people used to meet other people in transit. And in laundry rooms, or while waiting in line. But now, they plug their ears and stare at screens. They don't smile about the Star Wars reference on your shirt, or ask you what trucks you've got on your longboard. They don't say bless you when you sneeze. Conversation, flirting and banter are beautiful forms of play. But they are a dying art. Carefully scripted, edited and online encounters have largely replaced spontaneous, surprising and real-world ones.
(Not coincidentally, as more Americans have started using cell phones, they've also experienced greater feelings of loneliness and isolation.)
Perhaps an even bigger problem is that our devices take us out of the present. We don't experience the people and the world around us, because we're busy scrolling through our Twitter feeds. We don't just watch the sun rise. We don't just observe the sights and sounds of the city. We're not just mindful and present in our surroundings.
And that's a shame, because there's power in mindfulness. It was the earliest form of psychology -- and, in a way, psychiatry and neuroscience. Mindfulness makes us feel younger. It makes our day seem longer. It brings us mental clarity. And it helps us recognize opportunities and resources for fun. Fliers for a show you might want to see. A little sculpture you've never noticed before. A - wait, what? - a swing! Over in that tree!
You know. The little things that turn normal days into mini-adventures.
Want to know more? Check out I Got a Smartphone, and it Instantly Made Me Less Cool.