Smartphones are stymying children’s imaginations

Portable screens mean that patience is a virtue pupils haven’t got – but they need to learn some things must be endured

Bored child

A new hairdresser exclusively for children has opened in my town. The younger ones sit in miniature toy cars that they pretend to drive while having their hair cut. And the older ones get to play video games.

So, while someone they would doubtless struggle to identify in a line-up afterwards dutifully cuts their hair, the children get busy in the virtual world, speeding round racetracks or apprehending bad guys. There’s even a clear plastic window in the protective gowns so they can still see the handheld controller.

The miniature cars for the under-fives I can live with, but I find the rest of it deeply depressing. It’s all part of a trend that holds children must never be allowed to be bored. This is a huge mistake.

As an adult, you might sign up to a yoga class or practise a spot of mindfulness to give your brain a break. Being bored is the child’s version of meditation – an opportunity to get lost in their own thoughts. Yet, scenarios in which children would once have had to endure a spot of tedium are being swept up faster than the cuttings on a salon floor.

Entertainment is now so portable that children having to sit and wait patiently is becoming an old-fashioned concept. When they go out to restaurants, they are presented with tablets or a parent’s phone lest they get bored; when they go to the doctor or the dentist, technology is often produced to keep them entertained; and when they go on car journeys, they are also frequently glued to their devices.

A trip to the hairdressers should be a mildly tedious task to be ticked off the list; long car journeys should be peppered with plaintive cries of “Are we there yet?” ; and the best thing about the doctor or the dentist should be the shabby old toys in the corner of the waiting room. Why? Because children need a dose of dullness to get that wonderful surge of delight when they are finally set free to do their own thing. In other words, how do you know what fun is if you never experience extreme boredom?

Increasingly, children are being kept at the emotional equivalent of a constant simmer. They are neither bubbling over with enthusiasm, nor experiencing the chill of having to sit and wait patiently.

And, of course, we know that they are struggling. Just this week, leading charities accused the Scottish government of failing to curb the mental health crisis in schools.

They argue that the government is overly focused on the treatment of pupils once they have developed issues such as anxiety and depression. Instead, they say, there should be a greater emphasis on teaching all young people the life skills and emotional intelligence they need to cope.

But if we don’t let children live through the mild inconvenience of a traffic jam without chucking a tablet at them, why are we surprised when they find the more challenging aspects of life hard to handle?

The same attitude that children must be entertained creeps into education, where the pressure is on teachers to make their lessons as engaging as possible. And rightly so, to an extent. But there does come a point – and for many pupils who are studying for their exams, that time is now – where things just have to be learned.

A trip to the hairdressers used to be one small step on the road to understanding that some things simply have to be endured. It was a life lesson and now it has become, even in a rural Scottish town, just another time to sit glassy-eyed in front of a screen.

We need to bring back boredom and embrace ennui. That way, when something good happens, children will be able to identify it, celebrate it and truly appreciate it. And when something bad happens, they will understand that life is a spectrum, and it might just help them to cope.

@Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 19 April 2019 issue under the headline “How can children know what fun is if they are never bored?”

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