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Social Media Doesn't Alleviate Boredom, Study Says

Man looking at phone, appearing bored.

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Key Takeaways

  • Checking your phone, specifically social media, can feel like an easy way to pass the time when you're bored.
  • But a recent study reveals that individuals who used their phones to alleviate boredom at work actually ended up feeling worse afterward.
  • Allowing for bouts of boredom, or at least opting for time spent outside your phone, can boost mood and creativity.

The urge to scroll is strong, especially when you're bored. And an ever increasing appetite for stimulation can easily be whet just by hopping on a smartphone and perusing social media.

While the convenience is undeniable, new research makes it more clear that mindlessly checking our phones and social media profiles has become the fast food of fuel for the mind, providing for the most part only empty calories and leaving us even less satisfied than before.

A recent study measured levels of boredom and fatigue throughout the workday and phone usage during work breaks. When comparing the two, negative feelings weren't remedied after time spent scrolling. In fact, they were often made worse.

"Being productive versus idling on one’s smartphone is simply the most obvious 21st century decision trade-off to study this topic," says one of the study's researchers Jonas Dora, PhD. "In that sense, I was hoping to learn something which is relevant right now but that can also teach us something about the more fundamental wiring of the mind."

The Research

Researchers from the Netherlands' Radboud University asked 83 PhD candidates to report on the levels of boredom and fatigue they felt every hour while they were working. These participants also downloaded an app to their phones that tracked their usage of the device, which made it possible for researchers to determine when participants used their phones as a way to cope with boredom.

The results, published in Royal Society Open Science, showed that phone usage wasn't an effective method to alleviate boredom and fatigue and even made these feelings worse in many cases.

While the reasoning for this is still speculative for now, Dora points to some potential explanations.

"What we saw in the real world is that people take many mindless short breaks on their phone, even when fatigue and boredom are low or moderate, and that does not seem helpful," Dora says.

He also notes that it's possible that switching between work tasks and smartphone usage could make the work tasks seem more daunting, which could then result in further boredom and fatigue. But again, he insists, this is just speculation.

Phone Stress

It's not by accident that the urge to check your phone can sometimes feel like an addiction. Rebecca Mores, LICSW, notes that the stimulation we receive via our phones can end up dulling reality and keep us coming back for more.

"Smartphones and social media can create a sense of urgency for us, and not often in a good way," Mores says. "With the intent to keep us scrolling, social media uses carefully planned and researched methods to keep us engaged. These strategies are actually borrowed from the same methods used to keep gamblers at a slot machine." 

This habit can have serious negative outcomes. According to an annual Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association, constantly checking your phone is linked to stress, which largely stems from social media use.

Nancy Irwin, PsyD

Boredom is generally a quest for fulfillment from external sources. However, real fulfillment is an internal job.

— Nancy Irwin, PsyD

Despite the initially comforting act of tapping an app, logging on to social media runs the risk of souring your mood, as it can quickly foster self-comparison and the fear of missing out. Having access to a real-time curated version of the lives of others is nice until it reveals all of the events and activities we're missing out on.

"There is something about the scrolling that eases people," says psychologist Nicole Lacherza-Drew, PsyD. "Although scrolling and checking might make the time go faster...before we know it those 10 minutes we had to fill have now turned into an hour, and we are wondering why we didn’t make the guest list cut and our mood has gone from bored to upset or angry."

Seeking Boredom Relief

Boredom is a universal experience that we all deal with. And while a smartphone that's always within arm's reach might be the most convenient option for passing the time, this study reveals that in certain contexts it might not always be the most positive choice.

In work-related bouts of boredom or downtime, Dora recommends using smartphone breaks sparingly and limiting them to two minutes.

"If you take a break with your smartphone, try to engage with it in a way that brings you joy, as enjoyable breaks have been shown to be better for recovery," Dora says. "[But] more research is needed to be confident in these conclusions."

The less time you spend doomscrolling, the better off you'll be. This requires self-control to avoid picking up your phone during the lulls in your day. If you're someone who has trouble with this in general, it may be helpful to physically distance yourself from the device during work hours.

Overcoming temptation can be half the battle, especially if the work you're doing isn't overly stimulating. So, putting your phone in a drawer or another room altogether can nip the problem in the bud.

Michael Alcée, PhD

When we attempt to use our phones to disrupt and distract from this natural process, we are essentially denaturing the psychological catalysts we need for creativity

— Michael Alcée, PhD

If you need your phone nearby, there are helpful apps and services that enact timers on your overall phone usage or time spent on certain apps. Turning off notifications can also help curb the urge to pick up your phone. Without constant pings and alerts, you'll have greater freedom in your free time.

During those breaks, opting for IRL activities like taking a walk, chatting with a coworker, reading an article, calling a loved one, journaling, checking off a small task on your to-do list or simply embracing some peace and quiet can leave you feeling rejuvenated after a work break, rather than drained.

It's important to note, though, that a bit of boredom isn't bad. It's a normal part of life and can actually benefit our minds. Research shows that the feeling of boredom often acts as fuel for greater creativity.

"When we attempt to use our phones to disrupt and distract from this natural process, we are essentially denaturing the psychological catalysts we need for creativity," says psychologist Michael Alcée, PhD.  

"It is an active cognitive and emotional process that allows us to see the poetry in the prose of our everyday lives, one that is more fluid and interesting and is a perfect antidote for boredom and fatigue. It's why photographers, writers, and visual artists are hardly ever bored—they are constantly on the lookout for that new way of seeing or experiencing that opens up a new portal of experience."  

What This Means For You

If you're feeling bored, try to embrace it. Spend time daydreaming, journaling, chatting with the people around you or taking a break outdoors. This way, you'll avoid developing a dependency on your phone for entertainment.

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Article Sources
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  1. Dora J, van Hooff M, Geurts S, Kompier M, Bijleveld E. Fatigue, boredom and objectively measured smartphone use at workR Soc Open Sci. 2021;8(7):201915. doi:10.1098/rsos.201915

  2. American Psychological Association. Stress in America: the state of our nation. Updated October 31, 2017.

  3. Mann S, Cadman R. Does being bored make us more creativeCreat Res J. 2014;26(2):165-173. doi:10.1080/10400419.2014.901073