Teenagers today have unprecedented access to technology, and yet many report that they’ve never been so bored.
There is a notion among older people that teens, with their smartphones and unlimited internet access, never experience boredom. CNN and other media outlets have repeatedly declared that smartphones have killed boredom as we know it. “Today, we don’t have time to daydream. Waiting in the doctor’s office or standing in line, we can check our email, play Angry Birds, or Twitter,” a media consultant once declared in HuffPost.
But today’s teens are still bored, often incredibly so. They’re just more likely to experience a new type of boredom: phone bored.
As members of what has been dubbed “Generation Z,” a cohort that spans those born roughly between the years 1998 and 2010, today’s teens and tweens have had unparalleled access to technology. Many have had smartphones since elementary, if not middle school. They’ve grown up with high-speed internet, laptops, and social media.
It’s tempting to think that these devices, with their endless ability to stimulate, offer salvation from the type of mind-numbing boredom that is so core to the teen experience. But humans adapt to the conditions that surround them, and technical advances are no different. What seemed novel to one generation feels passé to the next. To many teens, smartphones and the internet have already lost their appeal.
Phone boredom occurs when you’re technically “on your phone,” but you’re still bored out of your mind. It’s that feeling when you’re mindlessly clicking around, opening and closing apps, looking for something to do digitally and finding the options uninteresting.
Whereas previous generations may have scrolled through channels on the radio, wandered into different rooms in their house, 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.
“When I’m bored while I’m on my phone and I’m switching between different apps... I’m just searching for something to do,” said Addie, a 15-year-old in Long Island. “It’s like walking around your house in circles.” Often, they’ll find nothing on their phone entertaining and simply zone out and daydream.
To a parent or the casual observer, a phone-bored teen may appear engaged. After all, they’re on their phone, which many people consider an inherently engaging activity. In reality, they’re bored out of their mind.
“I can be in my bed for hours on my phone, and that’s me being bored,” said Maxine Marcus, a 17-year-old and founder of The Ambassadors Company, a teen consulting business. “You think that we’re so entertained because we’re on our phones all the time, but just because we’re on it, doesn’t mean we’re engaged or excited. I get bored on my phone all the time.
“When you’re bored on your phone, you’re just sitting with your own thoughts. You’re on it, but it’s just an action so your brain still goes wherever it wants to go. You get bored and you start thinking and daydreaming,” she added.
It’s important to note that the majority of time users spend on their phones, they spend engaged. Tech companies go to exorbitant lengths to keep users active and attentive. If you’re posting photos, liking, commenting, reading, or watching something on your phone, you’re not phone bored.
Phone boredom hits when you’ve cycled through everything there is to do on your device and you’re left feeling stranded.
Sarah, a 14-year-old in New York, describes it this way: “I’ll go on Insta and it’s just people all talking about the same things. I’m like, I already heard that or I already saw that. It’s like, when you’ve seen everything there is to see in your Insta feed or on the internet. We see the same lip gloss, the same eyebrow style, the same meme like 14 times. It all gets old and then you get bored.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve seen everything there is to see on the internet,” echoed Violet, a 15-year-old in the U.K. “I’ll circle around on different sites or apps. Sometimes I feel like I’ve reached the end of the internet, I’ll just watch the same videos on YouTube until eventually I’m so bored I start clicking random things on my phone.”
Arianna, a 14-year-old in Florida said she thinks phone boredom disproportionately strikes teens, since she and others like her have grown up with social media and mobile phone technology.
She said she got her first phone in 6th grade and after a few months it began to get old.
“When you first get social media your first initial thoughts are like, whoa this is so cool, you’re commenting, liking, following pages, interacting, you’re not bored and it’s a great distraction. Over time you get used to the feeling and scrolling and viewing people’s pics and posts and stories, and that makes you feel bored after a while,” she said. “You start looking for other things to do or just letting your mind wander.”
There are several ways to relieve phone boredom.
Obviously the most simple solution would be to log off, put your phone away and, as parents love to say, “go outside.” And many teens do just that or get involved in other offline projects.
Sarah said she got so bored by her phone once that she logged off and made some taglines for her grandfather’s ribbon company, one of which got used by the company in a national magazine ad.
But often, phone-bored teens seek a solution on their phones themselves. Like anyone, they’ll text and hit up friends, post in group chat, or come up with weird, new creative projects to excite their mind. This could take the form of a new themed Instagram or Twitter account, or creating elaborate new types of memes.
Maddie, a 15-year-old in Texas, said she started her popular meme page while deep in the midst of phone boredom.
“I was just refreshing my personal Instagram account over and over like, I’m so bored I hate this, I want to find a new community to get into,” she said. She eventually set up a new meme page, and “found new topics and people and ideas to explore” so that she was no longer bored.
Other teens spoke about creating art on their phones, or making video or music remixes using various apps in order to alleviate phone boredom.
There is, however, a fine line between phone boredom and engaging in the type of unhealthy behavior on social media that can leave users feeling depressed and drained. This behavior includes the type of mindless scrolling that can lead to boredom and according to Facebook, encompasses browsing un-meaningful content without engaging. As groups like the “time well spent” movement gain traction even Facebook itself is working to revamp its product to create more “meaningful social interactions” and curb borderline phone boredom.
But Arianna and other teens said that they hate when parents tell them that the amount of time they’re spending on their phone is unhealthy. She admitted that, yes, sometimes she’s not using her phone in the most productive way, but she said that it has also opened up an entire new world and brought “so much good stuff” into her life.
When she gets phone bored, zones out and stares at her screen, she doesn’t freak out about it. “Older people don’t really like technology, they’re always trying to put it down or not accept it,” she said.
“It’s so important that older generations realize we are not just obsessed with our phones, it’s so much more than that,” she added. “Older people think that our world will end because we have all this access to social media and technology that our minds are going to stop evolving or something. I’ve heard that many times. It’s not true at all.”
As any parent or school teacher can tell you, teens aren’t just phone bored, they also experience all the more traditional types of boredom too.
Adam Perkins, a researcher and lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at King’s College in London, said that phone boredom may even be a good thing sometimes. He said that it could potentially stop children from engaging in more destructive thought patterns or daydreaming, which can lead to unhappiness.
He also cautioned worried adults from jumping to conclusions about smartphones ruining kids’ brains. Certainly technology can be addictive and has certain undeniable effects, but are those worse than things previous generations dealt with? Debatable.
“Evolution takes a long time to catch up with technology,” Perkins said. “Smartphones came out 10 years ago, it’s not enough time to change kids’ evolution of their brains… I think I’m quite optimistic about the benefits of smartphones, they’re a good thing.”
“Boredom should be redefined with our generation,” Marcus said. “Boredom is not what it used to be because tech is so involved. But I still get bored all the time.”
Ingrid, a 16-year-old in Minnesota agreed. “Each generation has their own thing,” she said. “Older people criticize us because phones were not the way they got distracted, so there’s a generational bias.”
“Boredom might not manifest itself in the same way it did when my parents were kids, but it definitely still happens to us,” said Addie a 15-year-old in Long Island. “Online, we’re constantly connected but we’re still bored. But I still put my phone down, I still read books.”