If the lockdown had lyrics, for many children the chorus would be “I’m bored”. We’ve developed a keen sense of entitlement for variety and choice in our lives and many are exhibiting withdrawal symptoms in the face of the sudden restrictions and reductions in everyday choice and novelty imposed upon us by lockdown.
In the Cold War 1950s, boredom enjoyed greater respect in certain circles. The military became interested in how it could be used to brainwash and torture the captured enemy. The journal Scientific American published ‘The Pathology of Boredom’ and research began on ‘sensory deprivation’ and ‘physical isolation’ minimising external stimulation. As the brain was thought to function by reacting to outside stimulation, scientists believed that if outside stimuli were removed, the brain would essentially enter into a type of comatose state or ‘dreamless’ sleep. Yet they were surprised to find that ‘The mind does not pass into unconsciousness, the brain does not shut down …The isolated mind becomes highly active and creative’.
The adrenaline-flooded 1980s and 90s saw the rise of paid-for boredom as sensory deprivation re-emerged in the form of flotation tanks, and retreats began to replace isolation chambers. Today, scientists across the world are organising the 4th International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference for later this year. And now we have a national physical isolation experiment with an enforced reduction of stimulation.
While there are many negative aspects to our current state, there are hidden benefits – especially for children. The restrictions of lockdown offer liberation: being shut in opens a different set of doors.
We may be looking at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pause for reflection thanks to the very lack of variety and stimulation we bemoan. This is not a neo-Victorian radical traditionalist call for a return to the past but a straightforward apolitical health and development matter.
A tyranny of options
We and our children have cultivated a perpetual thirst for ceaseless novelty in many areas of our lives, which we expect to be satisfied instantly in ways unthinkable even a decade ago – from newsfeeds and alerts for our curiosity, Deliveroo and Just Eat for our palates, Netflix for our need to see the next episodes now, Amazon for next day delivery, to hook-up apps for new or better partners for marriage … or just for tonight.
Consumerism and consumption have gone far beyond material goods to include, more than ever, experiences, including virtual experiences. Window shopping for houses, holidays, romantic partners, or peering into the lives of others including celebrities online, is available to all without taking a step outside our door. We’ve become gluttons for novelty and choice, and an expanding world of options, and so too have our children.
All of this has left little time for the necessary emotional housekeeping for good mental health as navel-gazing, daydreaming and even reflection are looked at askance as a waste of time. Yet this is precisely what children especially need more, not less of. Children need time to process and integrate their daily experiences and emotions in order to make sense of their day, their life, relationships and the world around them. And they’re just not getting enough of it.
Children also need the opportunity to be bored – it’s a health and development requirement. Most of us have already learned that life does not consist of a never-empty bowl of cherries. Our children need to learn this, and the earlier the better for their wellbeing. By experiencing tedium, they develop strategies to escape it. What they mustn’t learn is that the solution to boredom comes from outside themselves – ‘buy this, watch that, drink this, smoke that’ – requiring attention to the external. While parents can indirectly help from the sidelines, we must not feel obliged to ‘cure’ our children’s boredom.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been issuing what amounts to boredom warnings – children aren’t getting enough of it, stating ‘A body of multidisciplinary work contends that boredom stimulates creativity’. Our culture has increasingly embraced the notion that children must not be ‘under-stimulated’. Many middle class children are carefully exposed to further stimulation through the scheduling of extra-curricular lessons, classes and activities. The AAP recently issued a clinical report urging us to back off: ‘Parental guilt has led to competition over who can schedule more “enrichment opportunities” for their children… there are risks’. And psychologists have referred to the times when children don’t have anything scheduled for them as ‘undesignated moments’. The free, unstructured play and just messing about that are vital for mental health are now at a premium.
Although I publish medical papers on child health practices, travel provides an oblique second opinion, a reality-check on our assumptions about the norms and values of the day in our culture, by being very far away from it. Over the past three decades, I’ve travelled abroad extensively often volunteer teaching, to observe child health and development in more obscure cultures. This has led me around the world to places such as North Korea, Turkmenistan, Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Timbuktu, Mongolia, Borneo, Tonga, Myanmar (Burma), Irian Jaya (West Papua), Laos, Iran, Vietnam, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Far Eastern Siberia, Sumatra, Uganda, South Korea, Cambodia, Chile, Philippines, Jordan, Japan, China and India and others. My observations have proved invaluable, revealing universal patterns that have convinced me of some fundamental principles in child health and development that transcend time and space and are not subject to the whims of fashion.
One of the main observations that sings out isn’t an eastern versus western mindset but rather an inward versus outward cultural mindset. Cultures that value a place for thought and inner reflection offer benefits to mental health. In so many of the societies I’ve visited, children who we may deem impoverished are often rich in something we’ve lost: the ability to withstand a lack of novelty and an inner ability to resolve boredom.
Bertrand Russell considered boredom as ‘a vital problem for the moralist, since half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.’
Now is our opportunity to exploit our tedium and monotony. We must venerate, not fear, the world’s most uninspiring state as a vital experience for our children’s mental health by allowing them to experience the gift of boredom.
Dr Aric Sigman