Sarah K. Stephens

Sarah K. Stephens


One of the aspects I love about my job as a lecturer at Penn State University is the unpredictability of the classroom. No matter how much you prepare for a lecture, it is utterly impossible to anticipate everything.

There will inevitably be a question or a comment that will surprise you or cause you to stumble over your methodically planned narrative. In the best cases, your students will lead you to a brand new angle on an issue—a fresh perspective.

Recently, my students and I were examining the influence of screen-time on infants and young children. As a developmental psychologist, I regularly make the case to my students that humans have evolved to need many things in order to survive and thrive, especially in childhood, but screen-time is not one of them.

In fact, data suggests that screen-time in young children can lead to a displacement effect, such that media usage is replacing a form of stimulation we actually need when we are young: one-on-one interaction with other human beings, especially our primary caregivers. Interesting work from Dimitri Christakis (check out his TED Talk here) and Patricia Kuhl (find her TED Talk here) verify the importance of human interaction for infant and child learning, and the potential detrimental effects on children’s development, especially for language, if videos replace in vivo experiences.

Photograph via Varshesh Joshi

I presented this information to my students, to which they responded with a question: Since we can’t spend every single moment with our children, is it okay to have your baby or toddler watch a video when, say, you are switching a load of laundry or trying to drain the pasta for dinner?

And my initial instinct in answering was: Yes, certainly.

The detrimental effects of screen time on young children are associated with regular and extended viewing times, particularly when paired with a decline in one-on-one interaction with caregivers. Not with brief and sporadic exposures.

But then, as often happens in the classroom, my students’ question turned my attention to another aspect of the problem. It made me think about boredom, and the cultural shift that easily accessible screen-time is causing regarding our comfort with letting our children be bored.

One of the main foundations of healthy development is learning self-regulation or self-control. To function in society, we need to be proficient at delaying or inhibiting our impulses. Living with, learning around, and loving others requires us to regularly put our own desires and needs behind the needs of the group. This is true in school as a student, in any family, however composed, and in any relationship. To get along with others, we need to get over ourselves.

Photograph via Kevin Lee

The process of learning to self-regulate is an extended one that begins in early infancy and continues to mature well into young adulthood. To highlight this lengthy process of maturation, just consider your own strategies for controlling your behavior when you were, say, five years old compared to twenty-five. Invariably and qualitatively different, I would venture.

And here’s where boredom comes in.

One of the primary vehicles for practicing self-control is being bored. When we are lacking in easily accessible entertaining distractions (such as those found in many handheld devices) we are forced into learning how to cope on our own with the uncomfortable feelings of tedium. If we never allow our children to get to a point where they self-report boredom, the threshold of which will granted likely vary from child to child, we are doing them a disservice for their self-regulation skills.

As with all skills, practice is as essential for the growth of self-regulation as it is for learning to throw a perfect foul shot or perfecting the chromatic scale.

Culturally, though, we seem much more comfortable pushing our children towards these externally-visible talents (which, mind you, require self-regulation skills in order to develop—practicing 100 foul shots or running over your scales for 30 minutes does not lend itself well to a dysregulated child) than to the essential internal one of self-control. We seem to assume it will manifest itself in our child one day, perfectly honed and ready for use.

Put that way, it of course seems obvious that this won’t happen. None of us expect skills to just magically emerge in our children. And yet, we also find ourselves avoiding one of the most fertile experiences to help our children grow their self-regulation: boredom.

After my students’ comments in class that day, I started attending more to the ‘children-in-waiting’ out in my community. Granted, my community is a predominantly middle-class college town, so many families have the financial resources to provide mobile screen-time to their children, and it’s important to note my observations can only be applied to similar contexts.

What I observed in my town, though, was a distinct departure from what I recall from my own pre-smart phone childhood in a demographically similar area. At the doctor’s office, in the grocery store line, at restaurants, in cars traveling around town, and even religious services I saw children (and infants) being provided screens by their adult caregivers as a way of avoiding boredom.

There is concern in our field that screen-time is preventing our children from learning how to self-regulate, and some preliminary research to suggest that this relationship is the most profound for children who already display deficits in self-control.

With self-regulation being a fundamental key to success—both professionally and relationally—we have to ask ourselves what we might be losing if we continue to try so hard to keep our children entertained.

Boredom encourages a child to look inward for enjoyment. It encourages creativity with the materials readily available to a child. It forces a child to practice doing something they perhaps don’t like. I could go on and on with the benefits of letting our children regularly sit with themselves for periods of time, away from pre-packaged entertainment.

In all these ways, boredom lays the groundwork for our children to eventually be able to do what they love, because no career or talent can blossom without the capacity to learn to do what we dislike and to delay doing what we enjoy.

I’m encouraging myself as much as I am encouraging any of my readers who are parents: Leave your children (safely) up to their own internal devices. Make them flip through boring magazines at the dentist. Have them listen to the conversation at dinner. Let them sit in the car and watch the scenes of your town whoosh by.

Sure, it might get messy. But that’s often when growth really begins.

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More About Sarah K. Stephens: Sarah K. Stephens earned her Doctorate in Developmental Psychology and teaches a variety of human development courses as a lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories have appeared in Five on the Fifth, The Voices Project, The Indianola Review, and the Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, will be released in Winter 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook and read more of her writing on her blog.