"Why Are You Bored?": An Examination of Psychological and Social Control Causes of Boredom among Adolescents

Article excerpt

Introduction

Research on boredom has spanned decades and has been approached from a variety of philosophical, sociological, and psychological perspectives. During this time, discussion in the literature has addressed causes and consequences of boredom. The only apparent consensus is that boredom is a complex phenomenon. Understanding boredom during adolescence is even more challenging because boredom is compounded by concomitant developmental processes. These developmental issues, such as autonomy development, changing cognitive abilities, evolving relationships with parents, and the liminal quality of behavioral demands, make boredom particularly salient for youth. In addition, the amount of free time available to adolescents and the increasing control they have over this time compared to their childhood years suggests free time may provide a new challenge to adolescents as they take on increasing responsibilities for structuring their own time.

The increasing focus on boredom during adolescence is, in part, due to the fact that boredom has been linked with a number of problem behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse (Iso-Ahola & Crowley, 1991; Orcutt, 1985), higher rates of dropping out of school (Farrell, Peguero, Lindsey, & White, 1988) and vandalism (Caldwell & Smith, 1995). Clearly, none of these behaviors are developmentally or societally productive. Thus, the general purpose of this study was to better understand the phenomenon of adolescent boredom in free time.

Theories of Boredom

Existing research provides us with an understanding of the associated outcomes of boredom in free time, but the body of knowledge is less clear regarding the causes of boredom. Two major perspectives help us understand the causes of boredom: psychological theories and social control theories. These theories are discussed in the following section, and where appropriate, developmental considerations are addressed.

Psychological explanations suggest that boredom stems from (a) a lack of awareness of stimulating things to do in leisure (Iso-Ahola & Weissinger, 1987); (b) a lack of intrinsic motivation, and in particular self-determination, to act on the desire to alleviate boredom (Iso-Ahola & Weissinger, 1987; Weissinger, Caldwell, & Bandalos, 1992); and (c) a mismatch between one's skill and the challenge at hand (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The latter is also known as the understimulation model of boredom (e.g., Larson & Richards, 1991).

Cognitive psychology suggests that adolescents are maturing in many ways that might influence perceptions of boredom. As adolescents grow older, they mature in their capacity to temper or regulate their interactions with their circumstances (Elliott & Feldman, 1990). At lower maturation levels, once boredom is perceived, adolescents might lack the ability to (a) identify changes that could be made and/or (b) perceive ways in which they could act on the desired change. In addition, the speed, efficiency, and capacity of basic cognitive processes change (Keating, 1990) which might contribute to being understimulated, and thus bored. For example, some tasks may seem to be repetitive as cognitive abilities mature, thus producing feelings of boredom.

Psychologically based theories, however, have been based on adult populations and have not addressed the specific developmental tasks of adolescence. The developmental process of autonomy development (Steinberg, 1990), for example, suggests that boredom may be a response of resistance to external control, such as the influence of parents or other adults (Larson & Richards, 1991). This type of boredom might occur in situations when an adolescent is unable to exercise autonomy and at the same time is unable to physically leave the situation; in this case the adolescent may disengage psychologically through the experience of boredom (Eccles et al., 1993). Social control and resistance theories of boredom imply that boredom becomes a standard means of communication that turns into a routine aspect of the adolescent culture. …