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In an overstimulated world, do children need entertainment or connection?

I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to dinner where I see every person in a table busy tapping away on their own devices, together physically but their minds and hearts couldn’t be farther apart. Smartphones and devices have taken center stage in our lives when we feel like we’re missing something when we don’t have it constantly at hand? It’s on our dinner tables, by our car seats, in our bikes or exercise equipment, on our beds or nightstands, and on and on. When we misplace or lose it, it seems like a major catastrophe and we are unable to function at times. These devices aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so should it be up to us to decide how much of our time and lives we want to dedicate to them, that takes away from our time with our loved ones? Our children are constantly watching us. Waiting for us. What kind of role models are we to them? They see how much time we spend on our phones. Would that dictate how much they spend on their devices? Would they spend mind-numbing hours on it too?

Life isn’t meant to be an endless parade of phone calls, text messages, apps, games, and social media amusements. Whatever happened to good old human connection? Are we not neurologically hardwired to connect with people? What happens when that need for connection is disrupted by a device?

How often have you heard your child say, “I'm bored”? When you hear this, do you feel the need to keep your child entertained? What happens when they become dependent on you or worse on a device to be entertained? Every spare moment is optimized, maximized, driven towards entertaining them. At whose expense? And for whose convenience?

Parents preparing for a long car ride or airplane trip or a long dinner wait tend to use devices to extinguish their children's impatience and boredom with either tablets and phones. What did most parents several decades ago do when children were bored? Nothing! They may not enjoy being bored but it is helpful for them to find things to entertain themselves with like reading books, having a conversation with a family member or friend, looking at cloud formations, counting animals on the road, shadow puppets or games using hands and fingers like a game of patty cake, board games, hopping over cracks, stacking rocks or blocks, drawing; the possibilities are endless if we turn our devices off and allow children to find these sources of rich, open ended play and connection. In such a disconnected world, isn’t that what they deserve in their lives?

The ability to handle boredom, not surprisingly, is correlated with the ability to focus and to self regulate. In a hyperstimulating world, what at first seems captivating now feels less so; what was once mildly diverting may now be flat-out-dull. It’s so important for children to get bored — and be allowed to stay bored — while they’re young. That it not be considered “a problem” to be avoided or eradicated, but instead something children are capable of grappling with on their own. You don’t have to feel guilty when they don’t have anything to do. In fact, try planning “no plans” a few times a week. There's no need to fill every moment of your child’s time.

The most important takeaway is that wasting time isn’t time wasted. The brain gets to recover from an overstimulated world and children get to become less reliant on you or other adults and even devices as their sole sources of fun and excitement. A study has even shown that, if we can engage in some low-key, undemanding activity… the wandering mind is more likely to come up with imaginative ideas and solutions to problems. A creative imagination and problem solving ability are essential life skills, so it’s good for children to have these moments of ‘boredom’ and having to find ways to entertain themselves.

More important, it spawns creativity, self-sufficiency, and it encourages the ability to be quiet and mindful as an adult, without the constant need to be on-the-go or entertained.

By encouraging the development of such capacities, parents offer children something of lifelong value. Maybe if you put your phone away and your child’s device away, you can be bored together. Think of ways that you could be together and connect more. What rich conversations could you have and memories that stay with you?

Of course, with months of long summer days ahead, easy options like the television or tablets are unavoidable from time to time.

But next time you hear, “I’m bored”, please remember:

  • Boredom gives children an inner quiet that helps with imagination and self-awareness.

  • Creative processes can stimulate interests that will stay with your child for life.

  • Children develop creative skills when they have to come up with solutions to boredom.

“Children need to sit in their own boredom for the world to become quiet enough that they can hear themselves.”

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