Boredom in the Facebook Generation

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We live in a world plagued by an epidemic of online addiction.  From an early age, today’s children are initiated into a society where social networking, constant electronic stimulation, and limited interpersonal interaction are the norm.  Rather than cope with boredom through healthy self-stimulation, people around the world are urged to fight the tedium of their lives by turning on, tuning in, and dropping out of reality.  Some may call it technological innovation and “the wave of the future.”  I call it a serious problem.

Twenty-first century society condemns boredom as a weakness of the mind, an ephemeral condition marked by loss of direction, lack of stimulation, and vulnerability.  Boredom is portrayed as such an uncomfortable emotion that everybody is obsessed with avoiding it at any cost.  As a result, countless hordes of people turn to technology as a cure-all remedy for their ennui.   The accessibility and convenience of cell phones, portable computers, tablets, PDAs, and a host of other mobile devices allow for access to the World Wide Web at any time and at just about any place.  Have you ever wondered why there always seems to be a Wi-Fi signal present, no matter where you go?  Or why mobile broadband data (3G/4G) stretches into the most remote areas of the world?  The answer is obvious: people are so psychologically averse to feeling bored that they feel the need to be connected 100% of the time.  Even if people aren’t physically logged-on 24/7, the mere assurance of a consistently reliable Internet connection is enough to put people’s minds at ease.  Sort of like a cyber security blanket, if you will.

I attribute this absurd fear of boredom to the systematic infiltration of technology into our everyday lives.  As a child, I remember my babysitter regularly sitting me in front of the television and instructing me to watch cartoons until my parents came home.  Not wanting to cause any problems, I obliged my caretaker’s request and enjoyed countless re-runs of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel garbage (I use the term garbage loosely – while there are a few programs of educational merit available on these channels, I was often relegated to watching half-hour segments on the adventures of a talking sponge).  As a fairly active youth, I preferred playing baseball and football in my backyard rather than watching television.  However, my new viewing habits rapidly conditioned me out of my old preferences, and I developed an unconscious desire for electronic entertainment.  Not long after I started watching television regularly did I start reaching for the remote whenever I was bored.

Fast-forward to 2013.  Smart phones and tablets are replacing televisions and desktop computers, so technology is asserting its presence in more places than ever before.  Among these places are countless institutions of higher education.  According to the article “I Get Distracted By Their Being Distracted,” published in the Eastern Educational Journal in Spring 2011 (http://castle.eiu.edu/edjournal/Spring_2011/Distracted_by_their_distracted.pdf), 79% of college students surveyed admitted to texting in the classroom.  Interestingly however, the 20% of students who responded that texting does not interfere with learning justified their texting habits with boredom relief.  One student admitted, “Sometimes class can get too boring, so being on your phone can be some sort of stimulation to stay awake.”  Another stated, “I can listen and text at the same time.  It keeps me from being bored.”  Still another said, “Most of the time I text because I am bored, so I was not learning to begin with.”  I personally disagree with these students’ opinions on texting in the classroom.  Without undivided attention and full mental engagement with the work being discussed, students cannot effectively learn to their fullest potential.  Moreover, all three responses attributed cell phone use to a means of boredom relief, so removing technology from classrooms will force students to pay attention to the teacher and alleviate their boredom through learning.

While countless technology “users” cling to their devices as a quasi-shield from the evils of boredom, they fail to consider a significant paradox in the relationship between technology and boredom.  Behavior trends in the twenty-first century suggest that technology may, in fact, be the underlying cause of the boredom that many are trying to avoid with the use of said technology.  Some may argue, “But technology grants me access to the Internet, a massive sea of never-ending information.  I could literally surf the Internet for the rest of my life and I would still only see a small fraction of the Internet’s archives.  It’s impossible for me to get bored, right?”  Wrong.  You see, modern technology is a double-edged sword.  While I concede that technology is an immensely powerful tool that allows for instantaneous data retrieval and superfast communication, it’s abilities can very easily force users into a state of profound boredom.  That is to say, chronic technology users often become jaded by the fast pace of virtual reality and come to question their existence in the real world.

If the positive correlation between increased technology use and increased boredom does not yet seem problematic to you, consider the effect on people’s relationships and communication skills.  “Generation FB,” a 2011 New York Times opinion article by Katrin Bennhold (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/opinion/global/24iht-June24-ihtmag-bennhold-22.html), comments on effects of technology use on today’s children.  Bennhold references a 2010 study by Douglas A. Gentile of Iowa State University’s Media Research Lab: more than two hours a day in front of a screen raised the odds of exceeding the average level of attention problems by 67%.  This statistic is staggering to say the least.  It goes without saying that a propensity for boredom can be directly linked to a low attention span; an activity can only hold one’s attention for so long before one loses interest and the activity becomes automatically labeled as “boring.”  Bennhold goes on to expound her observations of high school students at the Ratsgymnasium in Osnabrück, Germany.  She describes seeing a young couple absorbed in their canoodling activities.  The boy has his arms wrapped around the girl’s waist, and the girl is clutching her iPhone in her outstretched hand, surfing her Facebook newsfeed.  It sickens me to see the most intimate of relationships – that is, the romantic relationship between two partners – tainted by technology-driven boredom.

Unfortunately, boredom’s impact on connubial relations does not end there.  Nowhere are the effects of technology-driven boredom felt more acutely than in the bedroom.  The physical relationship between two partners is supposed to be a personal and attached ordeal.  Yet, the massive proliferation of pornographic material on the Internet has generated an epidemic of sexually bored adults.  The condition of disinterest in a partner as a result of overexposure and conditioning to online pornography has earned the affectionate nickname Sexual Attention Deficit Disorder (SADD).  SADD truly is a “sad” predicament; men and women often turn to pornography as a means of exciting their sex life and escaping the normalcy of their presumably monogamous partner(s).  With the simple click of a mouse, porn enables viewers to sift through thousands of picture and video thumbnails until they find something that strikes their fancy.  Every viewing session can be different, and most porn consumers rarely become bored with a given website.  The Paul Stephens and Robert Hardwick Weston article entitled “Free Time” briefly examines pornographic usage by cataloging all Web searches conducted at the National Technical University of Athens over a 24-hour period; not surprisingly, the vast majority of searches were erotic in nature.  As you can see, SADD has the potential to affect a very large percentage of the world’s population.  Additionally, a New York Magazine article entitled “He’s Just Not That Into Anyone” (http://nymag.com/news/features/70976/) conducts several interviews with SADD victims.  One victim states, “I’ve always loved sex, and I’ve always had a lot of it, so I really had to stop and think about it when she asked me recently why she always has to be the one to initiate things.  And she was right; I guess I’ve been fading from her.  It’s like all that time with these porn stars was subduing any physical desire for my girlfriend.  And, in some weird way, my emotional need for her, too.”  Yet another responds, “In order to come, though, I’ve got to resort to playing scenes in my head that I’ve seen while viewing porn.  Something is lost there.  I’m no longer with my wife; I’m inside my own head.”  Clearly, both of these men have experienced severe boredom related to their regular technology use, and the effects have taken a toll on their love life.

The inset graphic above perfectly encapsulates my views on boredom in the Facebook Generation.  The picture shows three male teenage students asleep at their desks with the caption, “BOREDOM: The innate fear that a lack of constant electronic stimulation may lead to the generation of an actual thought.”  This image reminds me of a scenario that I have witnessed far too many times.  Imagine two high school sophomores, Ryan and Jared.  The pair is sitting at Jared’s kitchen table huddled around their laptops, working on their final research papers for their US History I class.  Jared has four tabs open in his Internet browser: a Google search window for “Revolutionary War Timeline,” the Wikipedia page for George Washington, his Facebook homepage, and EasyBib, a citation generator.  Jared’s father notices his son’s unethical and inefficient research methods and suggests, “Why don’t you two walk over to the public library and take out a few books.  Those are some real sources.”  Jared counters, “But Dad, that’s so boring!  I don’t know how you made it through high school without your computer!”  Jared’s reluctance to accept his father’s advice is clearly related to his obsession with technology.  Jared realizes that by using books as sources in his paper, he may actually have to read and extrapolate his own ideas from the text.  Jared loathes the idea of boredom, and knowing that he cannot simply click over to Facebook to satiate his anxiety, dismisses the idea of textual research altogether.

Technology can be extremely useful when used properly and in moderation.  The Internet is vast frontier of information with ever-broadening horizons.  It allows for a rapid dissemination of information that exceeds the human capabilities of information processing.  As a result, people have become habituated to instantaneous gratification and high-speed connectivity.  People are so used to receiving massive quantities of information in a fraction of a second that they become frustrated and disenchanted with normal human interaction.  Every moment that passes by is a moment that you can never get back.  Consider looking up from your screen every once in a while to look around and experience the real world.  You know, it’s so boring after all.

POSTED: Thursday November 21, 2013 at 8:30 PM

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