The Lost Art of Boredom

By Lisa S. Burroughs

I’m so bored!

We have all said that a lot as children, right before our parents shooed us outside to play or threatened us with housework to alleviate our condition.

When was the last time you were bored? I can say quite confidently that I have not been bored in years. Is this a good thing? With all the options for constant stimulation available to us, boredom has become an extinct creature that didn’t have a reason to exist in the first place, like that bird that couldn’t fly. Good riddance.

Digital activities like texting, checking your social networks, refreshing your RSS feed, reading email, playing games, and checking in at your current location have the power to fill every second of your day, including those seemingly wasted seconds between other tasks. I’m not going to give you hard statistics on how much time we spend online via our desktops, laptops or mobile devices because we all know it is way too much and it culminates to an overwhelming cacophony of noise and information known as digital overload (DO).

DO and YOU

Perhaps you have experienced it yourself, or heard your colleagues, friends, or family complain about feeling drained or unable to unwind at the end of the day. We are always plugged in to the grid and its plethora of useful information and entertainment, which has its benefits. Who doesn’t love that Mary Maxwell? However, in the process we are not providing our minds the rest that they need in order to process new information and relieve stress.

According to the NY Times, studies show that constantly stimulating your brain with activities can leave you fatigued and unable to process information in the same way a well-rested brain can. In an experiment done with rats, scientists found that after a new experience, the animals were able to create persistent memories of that experience only when they were allowed to take a break. Like the rats, humans also need some downtime in order to process the information we have acquired. This makes me wonder what rat downtime looks like.

The instant gratification associated with quickly checking your friends’ status, then watching a sixty second YouTube video, and then playing Angry Birds is pretty enticing, as opposed to what–reading an actual book? Learning that new skill you’ve been putting off? Those things could take minutes, even HOURS, so forget it! There is a special risk to children and young adults because their “developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks—and less able to sustain attention.” Huh?

Soon we’ll be able to see and study the effects of digital overload on younger generations and compare them to older generations who did not have access to this level of technology saturation. Older generations, particularly Baby Boomers, are a growing online segment that can maybe teach us a thing or two about juggling these new technologies with that other thing we call real life (RL). Ask one of them what they did for fun in their youth and they might tell you about some plastic colorful hoops they used to spin around their waists. Sounds fun, right?

In our own user testing, we’ve discovered that older users tend to take more time with online content as opposed to younger users. They actually read text on screen, even when it is lengthy, as opposed to scanning. When watching a video, they even sit with their hand off the mouse until it is done playing; a sign of true commitment!

Could these differences in their behaviors also be a result of their upbringing and not their age alone? Older adults and Baby Boomers seem more committed to the content they are reading on the web and will take the time to consume it if the message is relevant to them. They won’t just read anything, believe me! We need to make it worth their while.

Enough! Just tell us what to do about it!

Regardless of a person’s age, digital overload is something that affects us all. And leveraging the Internet and social media can actually create a more healthy balance in all of our lives.

Currently, the University of Alabama is conducting a five-year study of residents living in assisted and independent living communities to investigate how the Internet and social media can have a positive effect on older audiences to help alleviate their sense of isolation and loneliness. In addition, a recent AARP study found that adult Internet users, especially social networkers, are more likely than non-users to participate in volunteer groups and religious organizations.

So what are we supposed to do, not check our social networks? Ignore our friends’ text messages and IMs? Throw our mobile devices in the electronic-friendly recycling bin? Not so fast. Use common sense to balance your priorities, and make time for RL (real life). Take some time to be bored. If this post got you started in that direction, then you can thank me later.

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One Response to The Lost Art of Boredom

  1. Lori Puente says:

    Love this! I have often felt that our BIG HOMES are designed to separate and isolate the family. Everyone having TVs and computers in their own rooms. I was one of the lonely few that would not allow this as my kids grew up. One family computer in the kitchen and two TVs, one in the family room, one in another den. They got their computers spring senior year so they could learn to use them before leaving for college. There are things that we have to sort out to keep in our society as we move fast and furious at MACH speed into the electronic age.

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