Written by Megan Farcas, LMHC (Clinical Supervisor, Senior Clinician)
In 2018, a technology company completed a study which found that Americans check their phone on average 80 times a day, roughly once every 12 minutes, including when on vacation (Asurion, 2018). While this number may seem startling, the addition of "screen time" limits within smart phone settings in recent years show just how much our lives have been taken over by the use of screens, social media, and apps. It doesn’t end there—use of screen time is not only limited to smart phones but also other devices like computers and televisions. Distracting yourself can look like turning on the television every evening and zoning out until bed time or scrolling through emails on the computer even though they have all been replied to.
Most people are aware of the dangers of screen time use in regards to things like distracted driving. The National Security Counsel documents that cell phones are involved in 27% of all car crashes and are the cause of roughly 3,000 distracted driving deaths every year (NSC). Yet there are other more subtle ways that constant distraction can cause us harm. For example, screen use even distracts us from using the bathroom properly—90% of people admit that they take their phones with them to the bathroom and studies have found that people spend up to 40 minutes using the bathroom when they are on their phone even though from a physiological perspective it shouldn’t take more than 7-10 minutes (Fulton, 2017). Such a shift in a basic function can lead to physical problems and ailments, simply because we are too glued to our technology.
So why is this? Why are we constantly distracting ourselves? In sessions with clients I often find that distraction is a way to avoid a deeper issue. It pushes off feelings of anxiety, depression, fear, sadness, or frustration to name a few. We engage in distraction because it works—but only temporarily. Eventually those feelings come back again and thus we engage in another distraction to avoid thinking about or feeling them (usually via screen time) that just perpetuates the cycle. Certainly there are times in sessions where part of the treatment plan is to utilize distraction techniques, but this is generally the case when the feeling or experience is insurmountable during an important moment (for example someone who is struggling with panic attacks while giving a presentation at work). Overall, the goal is not to always distract yourself, but to work towards managing the feelings and symptoms in other ways.
In my work with clients I have found that one way this can be done is by putting down the distractions and allowing yourself to be bored.
Being bored is often correlated with laziness or a lack of motivation. In fact, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines boredom as "the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest". Despite this definition, studies have found that boredom is often beneficial—maybe even necessary—for problem solving and creativity. A 2019 study found that boredom actually helped increase productivity on activities that followed periods of boredom (Park, Lim, & Oh). Boredom also often leads many to daydream, which can boost problem solving ideas and creativity (Ducharme, 2019; Mann, 2014). Boredom has also been found to help boost and motivate us towards creating new goals (Elpidorou, 2014);when we are bored we often start to think about the future and ideas we have or changes we would like to make. Additionally it has been shown to increase social identification, positive memories, and nostalgic feelings (van Tilburg, 2011).
Boredom can be hard to start if we are used to constantly distracting ourselves in order to push aside thoughts or feelings we are not ready to deal with. Sometimes the best way to work towards this is to allow ourselves momentary breaks from our constant distraction. Try taking a walk without listening to music or talking on the phone. Sit outside and let your mind wander without any agenda. Avoid looking at your phone when you are waiting in line or on public transit or sitting in a waiting room. Stop taking your phone to the bathroom. Instead, in these moments, allow yourself to be bored and see where your mind takes you. Do you start to come up with a creative solution or idea? Maybe you begin to daydream and reorient some of your goals. Do you find yourself becoming anxious? (Studies have shown that separation anxiety can be a response to not using technology, as 31% of people feel anxiety when separated from their phone (SWNS, 2017)). How long are you able to tolerate this feeling of discomfort? Can you work towards slowly decreasing the amount of time you spend desiring distraction vs. allowing yourself to reap some of the benefits of boredom?
Ausurion (2018, May 17). Americans Don’t Want to Unplug from Phones While on Vacation. Retrieved from https://www.asurion.com/about/press-releases/americans-dont-want-to-unplug-from-phones-while-on-vacation-despite-latest-digital-detox-trend/
Ducharme J. (2019, January 4). Being Bored Can Be Good for You—If You Do It Right. Retrieved from http://time.com/5480002/benefits-of-boredom/
Elpidorou A. (2014, November 3). The Bright Side of Boredom. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01245/full
Fulton, W. (2017, June 25). iPhones Have Changed the Way We Poop... for the Worse. Retrieved from https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/smartphone-toilet-health-risks
Mann, S. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Creativity Research Journal, 26 (2), 165-173.
NSC. Retrieved from https://www.nsc.org/home
Park, G., Lim, B.C., & Oh, H.S. (2019). Why Being Bored Might Not Be a Bad Thing after All. Journal of Academy Management, 5 (1).
vanTill, W.A.P. (2011). Boredom and Its Psychological Consequences. University of Limerick.
SWNS (2017, November 8). Americans Check Their Phones 80 Times A Day. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2017/11/08/americans-check-their-phones-80-times-a-day-study/