My four-year-old comes running into my room just before lunch, armed with a pressing question: "I'm bored. What should I do?"
"Wait for lunch. We'll eat soon, ten minutes," I promise. But she insists, "What do I do now?"
"Umm, nothing?" I offer, a suggestion that is greeted with incredulous protest. Whoever heard of doing nothing!
There are many things wrong with this little conversation. A four-year-old that's bored -- a word didn't even exist in my vocabulary at her age. A four-year-old that doesn't understand the concept of doing nothing -- as in, whiling away blank spaces of time that don't involve a playmate, outing, TV, or the iPad.
Looking at my child, her face screwed up in indignation, I remember the teenager I saw last week at a restaurant; glued to his phone -- texting, playing games -- in the midst of a family lunch. Kids who would once stare into space while the adults talked have found reprieve in technology -- as have their parents. Cars come accessorised with DVD players. The ever-expanding children's section in stores are teeming with toys, games, movies and books. And for the upwardly mobile family, the iPad has become the must-pack item for family outings.
We have to make sure that our children always have something to do.
Kids these days, right? Except we adults are no better. Noting the perils of constantly wired life, Doug Gross writes on CNN.com:
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. Between smartphones, tablets and e-readers, we're becoming a society that's ready to kill even a few seconds of boredom with a tap on a touchscreen.
I am no better. Stuck for 15 minutes in my doctor's waiting room, I fought a losing battle not to reach for my Blackberry before succumbing to the soothing distraction of Word Mole.
And I don't even have the generational excuse. My Doordarshan era childhood was all about being bored, and for vast swathes of time. No 24X7 TV or the internet. Even old-fashioned books and comics were in limited supply. Outings were rare, and we kids were only allowed to come out to play in the evening. Long hot afternoons were spent daydreaming and doodling, lying next to my mother who certainly didn't think her maternal duties included entertaining me.
Yet here I am, tapping on that phone even when I watch TV. What else would I do during the ads? One reason we feel so bereft without our phones is our fear of having nothing to do.
Anthropology professor Christopher Lynn says that the aversion to boredom is a natural human impulse, but technology is exacerbating the urge:
With their games, music, videos, social media and texting, smartphones "superstimulate" a desire humans have to play when things get dull, Lynn told CNN in an interview. 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 ...," he said. "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."
A little boredom, however, is a good thing. It allows us time to think, daydream or just be. An aversion to boredom is also an aversion to being alone with ourselves. And it prefers external diversion to personal imagination and creativity. Better to watch someone else's fantasy, created for mass consumption, on the flickering screen than to tap into our own. Better a passing, witty thought to be instantly shared on Facebook or Twitter than the discomfort of self-reflection. When we flee from empty time, we also run away from what Dr Laura Markham describes as "raw stuff of life" -- and the raw material of human creativity.
This is all the more important for children who are taught to depend on external stimulation even as babes in a toy-laden crib. "The gadgetry may distract a baby from crying, but does he ever discover his toes?" early-childhood educator Diane Levin tells the Boston Globe. The ten toes theory of child development argues that a baby left alone long enough to find his toes is learning a valuable lifelong lesson. 'He's figuring out that he can entertain and distract himself,' argues Levin. 'He's also learning something profound: that he has the capacity to solve his own problem.'"
"There's no question in my mind that we have more restless, agitated, and unhappy children because they are dependent on instant gratification," adds child psychologist Shama Olfman. "Life is boring when you haven't acquired the capacity to solve problems as basic as knowing how to fill your own time."
The failure to learn this key lesson most likely produces four year olds who don't know what to do with ten minutes of empty time. But who will teach them that lesson? Certainly not constantly distracted parents who are glued to their smart phones.