The constant distraction of social media could be preventing our minds from settling into a deeper, more complete feeling of boredom, according to a new study. Which is a shame, given complete boredom can be fertile grounds for innovation.
This 'profound' level of boredom is different to the initial, superficial level of tedium we experience when waiting at a bus stop or waiting for a television program to start. Yet this initial dip into monotony can be instantly dispelled with a check of Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or Facebook, meaning our boredom levels never progress into a zone of creativity.
"Profound boredom may sound like an overwhelmingly negative concept but, in fact, it can be intensely positive if people are given the chance for undistracted thinking and development," says Timothy Hill, a sociologist at the University of Bath in the UK.
"We must recognize that the pandemic was a tragic, destructive, consuming experience for thousands of less fortunate people, but we are all familiar with the stories of those in lockdown who found new hobbies, careers, or directions in life."
Hill and his colleagues examined the lives of 15 people who were either given paid time off work or asked to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Ages, occupations, and educational backgrounds varied between the participants, who were all from England or the Republic of Ireland.
Structured interviews were conducted with the participants, in which they explained how they spent their time during the pandemic, along with the sorts of feelings they experienced. While boredom kept coming up again and again, this was often countered by social media and so-called doomscrolling.
Those people involved in the study who did experience deeper, profound boredom found it brought on feelings of restlessness and emptiness. However, there was also a renewed push to fill that emptiness: passions such as carpentry, baking, and cycling were discovered or rediscovered during the pandemic.
The researchers are keen to emphasize that many people don't have the luxury of just sitting around and doing nothing for extended periods of time – and that social media can be vital in maintaining relationships with family and friends. However, they say there is an important point to make about how social media affects our thinking.
"The problem we observed was that social media can alleviate superficial boredom but that distraction sucks up time and energy, and may prevent people progressing to a state of profound boredom, where they might discover new passions," says Hill.
This idea of superficial boredom and profound boredom dates back almost 100 years to a series of lectures by German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger suggested that boredom is a hugely important part of life, and one that needs cultivating.
It's interesting that in the decades since, we've engineered more and more ways to avoid boredom: our minds can now be distracted around the clock, thanks to social media and everything else offered by smartphones, tablets, and computers. You don't really ever have to stop and lose yourself in thought, if you don't want to.
Other studies have also suggested that boredom and the associated wandering of a free mind is a crucial foundation for creativity, which may be why so many good ideas come to us in the shower. The researchers behind this latest study plan to dig deeper into the topic.
"This research has given us a window to understand how the always-on, 24/7 culture and devices that promise an abundance of information and entertainment may be fixing our superficial boredom but are actually preventing us from finding more meaningful things," says Hill. "Those who engage in digital detoxes may well be on the right path."
The research has been published in Marketing Theory.