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The Unbored Generation

In the age of smartphones, is boredom a thing of past?
(Photo: Esther Vargas/Flickr)

(Photo: Esther Vargas/Flickr)

We are quickly approaching a world where boredom may become a thing of the past. Smartphones give us near limitless access to computer games, funny videos, and an ocean of conversation partners. In other words, what we understand as boredom might seem strange or downright silly to future generations.

The idea of having "nothing to do" may be an antiquated concept. Indeed, a Pew poll released last week finds that nearly all 18- to 29-year-olds use a smartphone to avoid boredom.

"Younger users stand out especially prominently when it comes to using their phones for two purposes in particular: avoiding boredom, and avoiding people around them," the report concludes. "Fully 93% of 18 - 29 year old smartphone owners used their phone at least once to avoid being bored, with respondents in this age group reporting doing so during the previous hour in an average of 5.4 surveys over the one-week study period."

That last sentence is especially striking. The likelihood of encountering a person doing anything at a given time, even common actions like eating or meeting with another person, is actually quite slim. For instance, I only eat once or twice a day; I have meetings for about an hour or so throughout my day. So, on balance, if a survey asks if I "ate something" or "met with a person" in the last hour, the chances of the answer being "no" are higher than it being "yes."

In 2012, Pew found that teenagers sent an average of 60 texts per day—about four texts an hour for every waking hour.

But during the week in which the Pew participants were monitored, the probability of finding a young person who had used a smartphone in the past hour to avoid boredom at any given point in their existence was a near certainty.

This fact may seem incredible, but it matches other data on teenage behavior. In 2012, another Pew survey found that teenagers sent an average of 60 texts per day—about four texts an hour for every waking hour. That extraordinary volume of messaging requires constant contact with one's phone.

Since the turn of the century, writers have been predicting that the idea of boredom would start to fade from existence. In 2010, the Atlantic's Walter Kirn wrote, "Thanks to Twitter, iPads, BlackBerrys, voice-activated in-dash navigation systems, and a hundred other technologies that offer distraction anywhere, anytime, boredom has loosened its grip on us at last—that once-crushing 'weight' has become, for the most part, a memory."

Some researchers see a correlation between rising rates of attention deficit disorder and the pervasive use of electronics. "People with ADHD are hardwired for novelty seeking, which until recently was an evolutionary advantage,” University of Chicago Psy.D. Michael Pietrus once famously said. Pietrus noted that ADHD is pervasive, affecting about one percent of children and 20 percent of adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, reports that diagnosis of ADHD is up about two percent since 2003. Of course, that could just be because more children are getting tested.

Overall, it's difficult to know if constant stimulation is causing any mass changes in behavior. One meta-analysis in 2013 found that screen time has almost no association with behavior disorders once other factors, such as family characteristics, were taken into account.

Overstimulation may indeed have dire effects, but we can't say for sure—we simply don't yet have the mass scale measuring system. At the very least, our phones are always keeping us entertained.