I was 34 when I went back to high school. I returned as a reporter, visiting schools all over the country, and eventually the world, as I wrote about education. On my new beat, almost everything felt familiar: The cafeteria still smelled odd, not bad, not good. The main office still felt like a place to avoid. In the classroom, the black-and-white analog clock remained at its post, just like the pencil sharpener, God love it.
There was one surprise, though. Something I’d forgotten, though I can’t imagine how. I am talking about the one emotion that dominates the experience more than any other, the signature sensation of high school. I’d forgotten all about the boredom.
It sneaks up on you, when you go back. Like the students themselves, reporters who camp out in schools find themselves wishing and waiting for large portions of the day—waiting for kids to finish their worksheets, wishing the video weren’t so long, waiting for the bell to ring so we can move on to the next interview. When Gallup asked American teenagers to choose three words that best described their typical feelings in school from a list of 14 adjectives, “bored” was chosen most often—by one out of every two students. (“Tired” came in second, chosen by 42% of teenagers surveyed.)
And boredom is global. Across 32 countries, nearly half of 15-year-olds said they often felt bored at school on average, according to a 2000 OECD survey. (Ireland did worst of all, with 67% of teenagers reporting frequent boredom, compared to 61% in the U.S.)
It’s important, I think, to remember this boredom. Otherwise, adults can build fictional schools in their heads, places where time behaves normally, where one can go to the bathroom without asking permission. Then they can obsess over things that matter only in these make-believe schools, not in real students’ real lives. They get into bitter feuds, for example, over whether Education Secretary Arne Duncan did or did not diss white suburban moms, while in the background, millions of teenagers fall into a catatonic state.
Boredom, it turns out, is toxic. It is related to depression, poor grades, substance abuse, hopelessness, and loneliness. In one survey of 467 recent high school dropouts, nearly half said boredom was a major factor in their decision to quit school. People who feel bored a lot may even be more likely to die young, according to a 2010 study.
Fortunately, there is now a way we can all keep this boredom in mind, even as adults. The kind of small grievances that used to be scratched into wooden desks and metal bathroom stalls are now part of the public record. Today, kids broadcast their boredom live, all day long, on multiple platforms in every conceivable medium. They air their grievances on Twitter; they post pictures of exquisite doodles on Instagram; they slap the most forlorn selfies you’ve ever seen up on Snapchat.
If you search Twitter for the words “boring” and “class,” you will suddenly find yourself back in high school. Most of the posts are forgettable, obscenity-laced rants. But some are remarkable, like flares of creativity and rage rising up out of the school into the sky. If you spend enough time in this digital graffiti gallery, you’ll find both an indictment of high school and worrisome signs about some students’ abilities to cope by means other than digital escape. But what’s most amazing, given the dangers of schoolhouse boredom, is how little we know about it.
“i'm reading this extremely boring book for a history essay and to liven things up morgan freeman is narrating in my head.”
Tweet from @gabitalolita, Nov. 21, 2013.
Boredom rush hour seems to happen around 10 or 11 am eastern time in America. By then, schools are in-session all over the country, and the Tweets pile up faster than you can read them. Some kids just howl in the darkness, but most plead for a response from someone, anyone.
Jilly Dos Santos is a junior at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, MO. When she gets bored in class, she and her friends Tweet, make vines (short looping videos) or post pictures on Instagram. She tries to be original, for the sake of her viewing audience. “Tweeting a boring Tweet seems counterproductive,” she says. A while back, she Tweeted this about a class she prefers not to name (lest she offend the teacher): “I'd say we have a problem when I learn more from amateur YouTube videos than the actual class....”
What Dos Santos really wants out of these dispatches, more than anything else, is interaction—the back-and-forth rhythm that allows her brain to slip into reactive mode, leaving behind the quiet work of listening and learning. “If I can start a conversation, then I’m occupied, my phone is going off, and I’m not just staring at the wall. I’m engaged.” Her school leaves it up to individual teachers to decide whether phones are allowed in class, a policy Dos Santos wholeheartedly endorses. Many of her teachers (like many teachers around the country), have decided to allow the devices with some limitations, since smart phones can (theoretically) be used for research--and since all-out bans are exhausting to enforce these days.
“You know a class is boring when you've wasted 40% of your battery in it....”
Tweet by @kirstyelise, Nov 19, 2013
Every few months, I spend a half hour or so monitoring bored-in-school Tweets like a tourist visiting a prison museum. The photos are particularly mesmerizing, part inspirational, part tragic. Many are selfies of extremely bored kids trying to show you with their faces how bored they are; others are elaborate doodles.
As a parent, I used to wonder if boredom might be good for kids—might give them space to be creative or help them learn to entertain themselves, an antidote to the modern childhood. But it turns out there’s not much evidence for this narrative. “Being at loose ends, being unfocused—that can be a state that leads to creativity and ingenuity,” says Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist and the author of the forthcoming 2014 book, Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. “But being bored is different, and it’s always a bad thing. It’s an aversive, unpleasant state that motivates us to escape from what's boring us. It's the opposite of engagement.”
The research on boredom in school is surprisingly scant—perhaps because boredom, unlike anger or defiance or other, less common schoolhouse emotions, does not directly disrupt the classroom. It is more of a latent virus, less likely to provoke adult interest. “Test anxiety has been examined in more than 1,000 studies to date,” Ulrike Nett and her colleagues noted in a fascinating 2010 study on boredom in school, “yet only a handful of studies have explored boredom.”
We do know that boredom is its own unique emotion. In research studies, people tend to describe boredom as something different than the absence of stimulation; they describe a feeling that is aggressively unpleasant, characterized by a desire to escape, to make the feeling go away. Because researchers love to name things, they have recently identified five types of boredom, from indifferent (the most benign) to reactant (the most negative version, characterized by anger or aggression).
In general, boredom of all kinds seems to be caused by repetitive, pointless tasks over which people have little control, according to studies conducted over the past few decades (nicely summarized by Jennifer Vogel-Walcutt and her colleagues at the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training). But some people are more likely to experience boredom than others. Boredom is a function, then, not only of a dull situation but of a person’s general disposition—just like anxiety. The teacher, in other words, is not the only one responsible for boredom in a classroom.
“this class is so boring. someone come break me out.”
Tweet from @AlexxaHolland, Nov. 19, 2013.
Students who get bored a lot at school also tend to get bored a lot at home. (Twitter is littered with bored-at-home Tweets, too, some of them from kids cutting class.) Boys are more likely to be disengaged in school than girls through middle school, according to Gallup Student Poll data, but girls catch up by high school. (By then, about six in ten students say they were not engaged in school.) Then the genders diverge again in adulthood, with men typically reporting that they get bored more easily than women. No one is sure why, but regardless of age or gender, the tendency to get bored easily is related to all kinds of other miseries.
There are exceptions, as always. The list of successful people who were bored in school—and thrived as adults--is long. Legendary New Yorker cartoonist Al Frueh doodled in shorthand class, turning the symbols into faces of his fellow students. Jonah Hill wrote his own Simpsons scripts to entertain himself in middle school, hiding his drafts in his textbooks. Steve Jobs deployed less constructive tactics, unleashing snakes and exploding bombs in third grade (or so he told Playboy in 1985). We can only imagine what would have happened had he gotten hold of a Twitter account in high school.
The good news is that kids seem to have more control over boredom than they might think. In the 2010 Nett study, most of 976 German teenagers surveyed fell into one of two main groups: the “evaders” were the kids who tended to avoid feeling bored by distracting themselves or talking to someone else, the kind who might be quick to Tweet or text at the first sign of monotony. Then there were the “reappraisers”—the kids who coped with boredom by basically talking themselves out of it. They tried to remind themselves of the value of what they were doing and reframe the situation in their heads.
All of the students used multiple coping devices, with varying degrees of success. But the evaders, it turns out, got the worst results. They did more poorly in school and experienced more boredom overall. It’s impossible to say which came first—the evasion or the problems—but it was clear which kid you’d rather your child be. The reappraisers experienced boredom far less often and did the best in school.
Interestingly, though these kids sounded like they must have had ninja powers of mind control, they were just as well-represented in the sample as the evaders.
In theory, teachers and parents could help students practice healthier coping devices, the secrets of the reappraisers. (Nett says she does this with her own students.) They could frequently remind kids of the value of what they were learning and try to make it more relevant to their future aspirations. In fact, a major reason for the new Common Core State Standards for what kids should know is to focus school on the skills kids will actually need to succeed in school and in jobs—to do fewer things more deeply, which could (in theory again) dial down the boredom ever so slightly.
But as long as kids have phones in their hands, it’s hard to imagine that more and more of them won’t turn to evasion—just as adults do. Knowing there is always something more exciting happening just a key stroke away makes it harder to do the deep work of reading, concentrating, grappling with tough questions—or, for that matter, reappraising.
Last month, Dos Santos’s phone broke. She had no way to Instagram or Tweet in class. It was a natural experiment in boredom management, and it nudged her in the direction of a reappraiser. “At first it was really annoying,” she says, “but then I felt like I got more work done, and I didn’t feel more bored. I could live without it. I can function without being stimulated. It kind of gave me perspective.”
A week and a half went by this way. Then she got a new phone.
Image via shutterstock.com.