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Handhelds Science

Why It's Bad That Smartphones Have Banished Boredom 351

Hugh Pickens writes "Doug Gross writes that thanks to technology, there's been a recent sea change in how people today kill time. 'Those dog-eared magazines in your doctor's office are going unread. Your fellow customers in line at the deli counter are being ignored. And simply gazing around at one's surroundings? Forget about it.' With their games, music, videos, social media and texting, smartphones 'superstimulate,' a desire humans have to play when things get dull, says anthropologist Christopher Lynn and he believes that modern society may be making that desire even stronger. 'When you're habituated to constant stimulation, when you lack it, you sort of don't know what to do with yourself,' says Lynn. 'When we aren't used to having down time, it results in anxiety. 'Oh my god, I should be doing something.' And we reach for the smartphone. It's our omnipresent relief from that.' Researchers say this all makes sense. Fiddling with our phones, they say, addresses a basic human need to cure boredom by any means necessary. But they also fear that by filling almost every second of down time by peering at our phones we are missing out on the creative and potentially rewarding ways we've dealt with boredom in days past. 'Informational overload from all quarters means that there can often be very little time for personal thought, reflection, or even just 'zoning out,'" researchers write. 'With a mobile (phone) that is constantly switched on and a plethora of entertainments available to distract the naked eye, it is understandable that some people find it difficult to actually get bored in that particular fidgety, introspective kind of way.'"
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Why It's Bad That Smartphones Have Banished Boredom

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  • by O('_')O_Bush ( 1162487 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:22AM (#41476129)
    I don't recall a time when talking to other people in line was the thing to do. Most people either daydreamed or tuned out everyone else.
  • by NoNonAlphaCharsHere ( 2201864 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:25AM (#41476155)
    Slashdot leaps to mind...
  • by Threni ( 635302 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:25AM (#41476157)

    I'll do what I want. I don't care what you used to do in the olden days. If you want to be bored, go for it.

    It's like people whining about magazines closing. Apparently one is closing now, in the UK. Some people are signing a petition. Who are they going to present it to? I bet hardly any of them actually bought it.

  • I hated boredom... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by malakai ( 136531 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:25AM (#41476159) Journal

    I can remember waiting awkwardly in line with other people with nothing more to do then stare at some advertisement or products around me. I, and certainly no one around me, wanted to start up a random stranger dialogue and shoot the shit. This alone caused me to be anxious. I hated waiting because I didn't know what to do, shuffle shuffle shuffle, hands in pockets, out of pockets, sigh, yawn... shuffle.

    I welcome the soft glow of my phone. It makes DMV, Passport agency, and anything in a municipal building _just a bit better_. Likely a few years from now an anthropologist will do a study about how fewer people are going 'postal' while waiting in line for some bureaucracy. How after waiting in line a few hours, the ability to play angry birds kept them from thinking about how much money they were going to be docked when they got back to work. It just may save someone's life.

    Also, lets not drone on about this 'habitual stimulation' always being entertainment. I see people on the subway who somehow manage to play games and watch videos, but I see just as many reading. Not to say reading can't be entertainment ( or that games and video can't be learning tools ). Just grouping everything people do with their smartphones into 'entertainment' is wrong.

    tl;dr: anthropologist overreacts.

  • Go out for a walk (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rasmusbr ( 2186518 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:29AM (#41476183)

    Just go out for a walk whenever you need to gather your thoughts and zone out for a bit. Touchscreens and walking don't mix...

    This tip works great until you get to the point where you subscribe to a large enough number of podcasts that there's always a queue lined up for you in your podcast player. If you're like me you can still zone out or let your mind drift a bit during the boring parts of the podcasts. Also, obviously, if you go out for a walk without your headset you commit to not listening to podcasts or music.

  • Meditation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:29AM (#41476185)

    When I started my meditation practice I was a full blown smart-phone addict. One of the hardest earliest barriers to get over was the idea of sitting idle for 30 minutes. Somehow mindlessly browsing reddit was okay but just sitting and watching my breath was not. I'd get flooded with all kinds of thoughts about how I should be doing something productive and typically that was accompanied by anxiety.

    At some point I had to stop and ask myself, who exactly do I think is judging my behavior? Why do I even feel like I need to justify what I'm doing with my personal time? Of course the realization came that it was all me, all my mind, and I let go of the habit.

    Now I meditate regularly and still use my smart phone. I look forward to sitting and knowing I get time to just be. I'm comfortable with that and reap the benefits. I'm significantly less stressed during the day and my mind is calmer. I understand myself and my actions better. I still use the phone, but sometimes I don't. Sometimes it's nice to just be with your own mind.

    I wouldn't say smartphones have only banished boredom though. They, like many of our modern baubles, have also lowered the bar for when boredom sets in.

    An aside I feel is related I can't remember the last time I had a good meaningful conversation with a group of friends or even one on one. Hell, even meaningless conversation with depth seems to have left. It seems like on average things are being reduced to one or two sentences on a topic and topics which require multiple layers of thinking just don't come up.

    I find it paradoxical as someone who was a loner in school I can look at my life now and see more friends, supportive family, great co-workers, technology like facebook, SMS, and smart phones to be always connected and yet I feel more alone than I ever have. I feel lacking in community.

  • by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:38AM (#41476245) Homepage

    Stop telling people what to do.

    Who's telling you what to do?

  • Re:Shower (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hardhead_7 ( 987030 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:38AM (#41476249)
    I don't even really see that as a joke. It's in those quiet moments that my brain will often present me with an idea seemingly out of thin air. Who hasn't been dealing with some particularly tricky problem, mulled it over, banged their head against the wall on it, and then while they're eating lunch or taking a shower - BOOM - your brain suddenly puts the right connections together and you have some new insight.

    Smartphones seem to be stealing away all the quiet moments of our lives, and I've come to realize that those quiet moments are important. Not just for our peace of mind, but for our ability to really let our brains work well. Lunch has disappeared as a quiet time. The toilet has disappeared as a quiet time. I honestly think it's a problem.

    I experimented with not doing any "compulsive consumption" on my phone a few months ago, and while this is purely anecdotal, I felt like it really did improve my concentration overall.
  • by ciderbrew ( 1860166 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:41AM (#41476271)
    Reading a 3 year old copy of Cosmopolitan or some other women's magazine in a doctor's waiting rooms only fills me with contempt. Mostly with myself for reading it I guess. Lists of "50 ways to please your man" or "Know if your man is cheating" should be covered by some mental health warning. Please tell me women don't believe that shite. Inane twitter and facebook posts have more worth.
  • by somersault ( 912633 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:48AM (#41476349) Homepage Journal

    While waiting in the doctor's office?

    But they also fear that by filling almost every second of down time by peering at our phones we are missing out on the creative and potentially rewarding ways we've dealt with boredom in days past.

    I didn't know masturbation was a creative pursuit!

    Actually, there is a valid point to the article, but I don't think it's anything to do with smartphones. It applies just as well to any device with a web browser and an internet connection.

  • Re:Games (Score:5, Insightful)

    by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:51AM (#41476375) Homepage

    > This could lead to reduced instances of colon cancer and
    > other diseases.

    Or just more hemorrhoids.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 27, 2012 @08:56AM (#41476449)

    tl;dr: anthropologist overreacts.

    Not quite. Doug Gross is a writer for CNN.

    It took me a bit of time to read through this. Basically it's a CNN article with a link to a somewhat interesting (but mostly unrelated) piece about social groups and smoking, and another to the front page of some web site (which I don't care to explore to find why it was linked). I'm still not entirely sure what point he's trying to make, but it seems to boil down to this:
    "If you release a long-winded article with lots of vague terms and a scary-sounding headline, it generates page hits and I keep getting paid to write more just like it."

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @09:04AM (#41476539) Journal

    If your cell phone is a "distraction" all the time, you're using it wrong. Not that having a distraction from time to time is a bad thing. Still, my phone is a tool to get things done, which allows me to do more of what I want to do. Between work and my hobby/social activities, I probably have the equivalent of three pre-smart-phone full time jobs, and almost nothing gets lost or dropped or forgotten.

    I still have "down time," it just gets interrupted less by all those nagging items I used to have to keep track of manually. My down time is of a higher quality now.

  • by malakai ( 136531 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @09:05AM (#41476551) Journal

    > ...I didn't know what to do...
    Did you ever try thinking?

    It's my default gear. Some would argue I do it too much. But standing in line, waiting, the problem with 'thinking', unless it was just for entertainment in which case I'd call it 'day dreaming' was that thinking lead to questions, and the questions necessitated answers. Not having reference material around me, or other sources to query, I could never get an answer to whatever I was pondering.

    Now, standing in line, when I think of something and I'm curious about it, I get to look at my phone and find ( most of the time ) an answer. I do this quite a lot. I wonder why the manhole covers I walked over on the way to the doctors office all said 'made in India'. I'd think about the cost of shipping them from India, about the conditions where they were made, about where the raw materials came from and how much of it does India have... and whether or not India meant The India or if it was some play on words...

    Cue my smartphone, and the answer, and some article about it ( I wasn't the first to wonder ). This is better than just thinking. This is being able to run little experiments in your head and validate a result in seconds.

    Just 'thinking' is so 80s....

  • by tehcyder ( 746570 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @09:32AM (#41476827) Journal

    Why is reading a crappy magazine in the doctor's office more productive than using your smartphone? I hate when people spew opinions like this without showing at least ONE piece of data/evidence that using a smartphone is more harmful than the alternative (the other things we do when we're bored). And didn't people make the same arguments about television? And then, later, about videogames?

    The point is that occasionally being "bored" (in the sense of lacking external stimuli) is a good thing as it encourages introspection and, you know, thinking.

    And BTW reading shitty magazines, watching shitty TV or playing shitty vidogames are all just as bad as wasting time playing Angry Birds, or posting facebook photos of your dog, on your phone. if you do them all the time and never give yourself time to think.

  • by dcherryholmes ( 1322535 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @09:33AM (#41476833)

    "was that thinking lead to questions, and the questions necessitated answers. Not having reference material around me, or other sources to query, I could never get an answer to whatever I was pondering."

    I do not mean this in a snarky way, because I certainly while away time standing in lines with my own smartphone. This is just the thought your comment elicited in me... maybe you'd think of an answer yourself? It depends on the subject matter you're pondering of course. "Who's the Prime Minister of England?" isn't really what I'm talking about. But if it's a novel problem, maybe *not* having reference materials at hand would actually prod your brain in a direction nobody's thought of yet?

  • by fafaforza ( 248976 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @09:41AM (#41476935)

    Well, by many accounts, we *do* have an obesity epidemic. Are you going to say that tv and in-house entertainment has nothing to do with that?

  • by fafaforza ( 248976 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @09:43AM (#41476945)

    No one is telling you what to do. They're just positing the idea that it's hurtful to you. But I guess you'd prefer that they do not study and contemplate things like this, and get back to playing games on their iPads.

  • by dywolf ( 2673597 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @10:01AM (#41477161)

    its not about tellng you what to do. its about suggesting that the phone gives a false sense of productivity. Equivalent to "empty calories". Being bored leads to wanting to do things. The phone satisfies that, without actually being productive, since the chief way of occupying time with a phone is with a game of some kind. The suggestion is that without the phone you would do something else more worthwhile with that small bit of time. That the game on your phone is a more compelling boredom relief than many other activities, yet in the end less rewarding than those other activities.

    Remember we arent talking about life goals or long stretches of time, but small chunks that used to be filled by introspection or conversation. Staring out the window on a bus (the "greatest philosphy school known to mankind"). Waiting for an order at a diner. Waiting for the dentist. Etc. The trend now, I know you've seen it, a group of friends at a restruant out to eat, no one saying a word, everyone just staring at their phone. They're there together, yet each alone.

  • by tehcyder ( 746570 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @10:03AM (#41477193) Journal
    The whole point of avoiding external stimuli and just thinking is to stop concerning yourself with mundane objects and trivia and concentrate on other things for a while. These things may include, but are not limited to, poetry, music, religion, philosphy, politics, psychology, relationships, nature, history, archaeology, painting, chess, cooking, sex and literature.

    Having no internal life is not something to be proud of.
  • Science? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Zalbik ( 308903 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @10:39AM (#41477575)

    Why is this story tagged science? I RTFA, and I didn't see any science there. I see an opinion piece from an anthropologist, without a shred of actual science attached to it. No studies, no control group, no data, nothing.

    With their games, music, videos, social media and texting, smartphones 'superstimulate,' a desire humans have to play when things get dull,

    Really? And where are the psychological studies to back this up? Neurological data? I thought not. Typical ivory tower "publish or perish" piece crapped out by the soft "sciences".

  • Re:Games (Score:4, Insightful)

    by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @10:59AM (#41477835) Homepage Journal

    If a little bit of stray bacteria gives you food poisoning, go back into your sterilized hamster ball [amazonaws.com] and leave the rest of us with functional immune systems alone.

  • Re:Meditation (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 27, 2012 @11:02AM (#41477885)

    There definitely is a stigma against multiple layers of thinking and I think it's getting worse. I believe this stigma is bred out of a fear of being seen as or associated with eccentrics. This is not a good thing,
    "That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time" - John Stuart Mill.

  • by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @12:46PM (#41479185) Homepage Journal

    I extremely skeptical of the productive value of talking to completely random people who just happen to be at the same office as you. Talking to people can certainly be extremely productive, but it's the right people, not just anyone.

    Actually....I've found talking to random people while out and about VERY helpful.

    I've met some great women I've dated while in waiting rooms...last one was in an auto dealership service waiting room, dated for a year or so...

    I've made business contacts...money from just chatting and joking around with people. Hell, even in bars down here (NOLA)...you often make some of your best and strongest business contacts at times, I know I have.

    I've heard maybe up north...people don't talk much to strangers...but it is common down here, and I've made friends, gotten laid and made money, all from light chatting or joking while in a waiting room.

    And really...is there EVER a bad time to try to hone your people skills?

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @01:53PM (#41480033) Journal

    And really...is there EVER a bad time to try to hone your people skills?

    Any time I want to relax is a bad time for that. You're an extrovert, good for you. Not everyone appreciates having their quiet time interrupted by a chatty stranger.

  • by starfishsystems ( 834319 ) on Thursday September 27, 2012 @03:59PM (#41481643) Homepage
    This is a fascinating topic for any student of the human condition.

    Most people are conditioned to experience boredom as a deeply unpleasant experience. I recall a program that Bill Moyers did a few years ago on the mind/body duality, in which he joined in a sitting meditation. It might have been zazen or something like it. He couldn't stand it. He found that he just couldn't remain in stillness, not even for a few minutes. Instead he became agitated and had to stand up and leave the room. The way he described it made me think it was a kind of panic attack. Of course he was deeply curious about this powerful reaction to nothing at all. I'm sure he's been thinking about it ever since. And so he should.

    If you reflexively avoid boredom, you are not able to access the enormous richness of experience in just being. In my view, that's a terrible loss. Read any of Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" books for children and you will get a taste of that experience of just being, as it was even a generation or two ago: people not always rushing about, multitasking and never really experiencing their real environment, but instead sitting and watching all the minute and lovely activities of the world. It's a child's way of looking at the world, and Ransome perfectly captures the wealth and innocence of it.

    Or consider Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha", in which the main character, when asked what makes it possible for him to succeed where others have so often failed, answers, "I can think. I can fast. I can wait."

    The thing is, boredom is not real. It's an illusion, a passing symptom of addicive withdrawl, Beyond it lies a world of real experience, exquisite in its quiet subtlety. "Pay attention" says the Zen master, who is roundly ignored because the advice he gives isn't mysterious enough, doesn't require any shiny technology.

It's fabulous! We haven't seen anything like it in the last half an hour! -- Macy's