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Boredom better than screentime

When ‘I’m Bored’ Means ‘I Want Screentime’

A lesson from The Screentime Consultant

Boredom is not a bad thing. In fact, I see it as the birthplace of creativity.

But for kids and parents, boredom can feel like an obstacle to overcome or a problem to solve.

I made a video a while ago that asked viewers to remember what happened when they said “I’m bored” as children. What do you remember? Some of the common responses to the post were: “Go outside,” “Only boring people are bored,” “I’ve got chores you can do,” etc.

Remember when?

Interestingly, no one remembered a parent saying, “Go watch TV.”

But today, when our children say they are bored, our common response is to hand over a screen.

Screentime will kill boredom.

But it will also kill creativity.

Yes, I know kids can be creative online. But studies have shown that only a small percentage of the time children spend on screens is in creative pursuits. Mostly, they consume passively (e.g., watching videos and scrolling). They are not writing the next great novel or coding a program.

Flexing some important muscles

As screen use has increased and their time spent in free play has decreased, children haven’t flexed their play-based muscles. They might not know how to play in real life when screentime ends. They really might not know how to handle the boredom because they’re out of practice

Parents who want to reduce screentime in their homes must reframe their thinking around boredom. We need to see it as an opportunity, not a crisis. We need to teach our kids to see it that way too. We also need to help them learn or remember how to play. And playing on a screen is very different from real-world play.

For example, even though I get a lot of pushback from parents on this, playing Minecraft is not the same thing as building with wooden blocks. In terms of brain development, building with 3D blocks in the real world is very different from manipulating 2D blocks on a screen.

A game with no ending

But I can understand why parents are confused about Minecraft. It was developed in 2011 by Mojang Studios and today has more than 141 million monthly active users. It is a wildly popular sandbox game, meaning it allows players a certain degree of freedom to play, build, and explore within the game.

I actually don’t fundamentally object to Minecraft. It is a game that my own children have enjoyed. However, like many other digital games, it has no true ending. So when it comes time to turn off the device or power down the console, children are likely to engage in meltdowns and exhibit emotional dysregulation.

Children need opportunities to play off-screen to build the skills that eventually will help them build emotion regulation and perspective-taking.

This is true for children of any age– “play” might look different at different ages and stages. That’s normal!

Hands-on play ideas

When it comes to tactile, hands-on play, here are some ideas for “littles” (what I define as roughly the “10 years and under” age group) and “middles” (roughly the “10 and up” age group):

For littles, play might look like this:

  1. Taking all the items out of the recycling bin to build a rocket ship
  2. Narrating an imaginary game out loud, losing themselves in an imaginative world adults cannot see
  3. Engaging in messy, tactile artwork, such as painting, Play-Doh, and chalk (sensory-based play for young children is wonderful for brain development)
  4. Working together with other children to organize a game
  5. Negotiating, debating, and compromising with peers
  6. Dancing, singing, and moving

For middles, play might look like this:

  1. Playing an instrument alone or with peers
  2. Spending time with friends in a variety of environments
  3. Playing on a team, learning sportsmanship and leadership skills (but also pick-up and informal games too– structure not required!)
  4. Expressing creativity through drama, dance, writing, or art
  5. Learning how to navigate social relationships and feelings

Non-screen play builds brains

All children — of all ages — need opportunities for play. Play builds healthy brains.

Screentime should never displace or replace opportunities for unstructured play. Especially following the isolation and stress of the global pandemic, children more than ever need a way to process their feelings, practice their social skills, and build their executive function.

Play is a free, easy way to do that.

Recently, my tween played the role of Uncle Fester in The Addams Family musical. She added all kinds of creative movements, facial expressions, and quirks to the character (in a bald cap, no less), bringing him to life. Play, within a play.

Read more:

Navigating childhood friendship in a digital world

Parental control: Does monitoring work?

About the Author

Emily Cherkin

Emily Cherkin, M.Ed., The Screentime Consultant, takes a tech-intentional™ approach to addressing screentime challenges. Emily spent twelve years teaching middle school in Seattle, WA, where she watched the rise of both social media among students and technology use in schools. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, NPR, “The Today Show” (twice), “Good Morning, America,” Australia’s “Weekend Today,” and numerous parenting websites, blogs, and podcasts. Chuck Norris has quoted her. As a parent to a tween and a teen, Emily understands the real-life challenges of parenting in the digital age. Her book, The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Parent, is available January 9, 2024 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. Please visit www.thescreentimeconsultant.com to learn more.