Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher, once remarked that boredom is “the bird of dreams that hatches the egg of experience.”
However, the creative flights of fancy that often come with having little to do are being snuffed out by social media, the researchers argue.
Mindlessly scrolling through attention-grabbing posts, videos, and threads prevents the buildup of “deep boredom” needed to spur people on to new passions or skills, experts warn.
On the contrary, people find themselves in a state of “superficial boredom”, which does not stimulate creative thinking.
“Social Media Exacerbates Boredom”
Researchers from the University of Bath surveyed 15 people during the pandemic, when boredom was more likely due to restrictions.
Many described being trapped in a monotony of daily walks, watching television and going to the supermarket, with many turning to social media to pass the time.
But although participants said social media provided a temporary escape from superficial boredom, it also seemed to exacerbate it, leaving them feeling like they’ve wasted their time.
Dr Timothy Hill, an associate professor of marketing, business and society management in Bath, and co-author of the study, said: ‘The problem we’ve seen is that social media can alleviate superficial boredom.
“But that distraction eats up time and energy and can keep people from progressing into a state of deep boredom, where they might discover new passions.”
“Superficial” and “deep” boredom.
Superficial boredom and deep boredom are two levels of boredom first identified by Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher.
Superficial boredom is the most common state of boredom, which is the feeling people experience while waiting for a train.
In those moments, people seek out temporary distractions and often turn to phones and social media. However, experts have said it prevents people from reaching a deep level of boredom.
Entering a state of profound boredom, or malaise, is important because it creates an “existential distress” that tests one’s sense of self and can ultimately lead people to make efforts to improve their situation.
‘What do I want to do with my life?’
Respondents in the study reported that when they fell into deep boredom, it led them to question their purpose and life choices, prompting them to seek out new experiences.
One attendee, named Richard, told interviewers: “I felt empty, an emptiness that was hard to escape. The more bored I got, the worse I felt about myself. Like, who am I and what do I want to do with my life?
“But one good thing is that it made me face new things to escape that feeling of emptiness.”
Many artists and writers have cited boredom as a trigger in their work, including JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Agatha Christie.
Bertrand Russell, British mathematician and philosopher, wrote: “Certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony.”
Dr Hill said turning off devices and engaging in a “digital detox” could help people reach the state of boredom that drives them towards new hobbies or achievements.
“This research has given us a window to understand how culture and 24/7 devices that promise an abundance of information and entertainment can solve our superficial boredom, but actually keep us from finding more meaningful things. “, he said.
“Deep boredom may seem like an extremely negative concept but, in reality, it can be intensely positive if people are given the opportunity to think and develop without distraction.
“We must recognize that the pandemic has been a tragic, destructive and consuming experience for thousands of less fortunate people. But we all know the stories of those who have found new hobbies, careers or directions in life in isolation.”
Previous research has shown that boredom helps foster creativity. In 2015, the University of Central Lancashire asked students to find uses for two Styrofoam cups.
Before the experiment, the researchers asked a group to do the tedious task of directly copying phone numbers from a phone.
Those who did the tedious phone task found far more uses for the cups than the control group.
The new study was published in the journal Marketing Theory.