How does boredom affect teen substance use?


In the top five most annoying things kids say to their parents has to be this: “I’m bored.” When I was a kid, if I happened to utter this in front of my grandma, she would snap back: “Only boring, uninteresting people get bored. Get over it and find something to do.” Although her approach lacked a little tact, she had a point. Kids today have more entertainment options than ever before (a fact every dad on a road trip likes to bring up at least once a day.) It’s also the sign of healthy self-awareness, self-management, and emotional regulation to be able to entertain yourself. Boredom, however, is a problem- especially during social distancing and virtual schooling. Kids who are engaged, connected, involved, and busy have less opportunities to engage in risky behaviors. In our temporary reality, we think it’s important to take a look at how boredom is impacting our kids.

In 2016 researchers in Australia sought to understand how boredom affects teen substance use. In a longitudinal study with thousands of teens, they proved that teenagers who experience more boredom also turn to substance use more readily. South Africa suffers from widespread adolescent substance use. Teens in their country have limited opportunities for recreational activities, plus a high degree of leisure time. Sound familiar?

The opposite of boredom isn’t entertainment, it’s engagement. Engagement is dynamic, interesting, and makes time fly. Engagement happens when we’re curious and when we experience some cognitive dissonance. Think of an engaging lecture you’ve listened to, or an engaging conversation. You definitely know the opposite- you know the meeting that seems to last forever, or the presentation that makes you angry for how irrelevant it is. 

That’s why this is so important for parents and educators to understand. We can’t assume that business as usual will work during this time (or ever, really). We need to learn how to engage kids by challenging them, provoking their curiosity and giving them the space to explore what bugs them.

So how do you help a kid who’s bored?

That’s the million-dollar question. We know from years of experience offering curriculum grounded in “Sparks Theory” that helping a kid find an activity that lights them up can change the trajectory of their lives. We think this is as important of a time as we’ve ever faced as a country to be intentional about helping kids reflect on their natural highs. To help them chase their own curiosity, provide opportunities for them to learn what they want to learn, to build or fix things with their hands, to try new activities, or to cultivate an interest in the arts or an outdoor activity. 

So the next time you notice your kid acting or feeling bored, jump in the car and ask them where they want to go.

Boredom Prone or Nothing to Do? Distinguishing Between State and Trait Leisure Boredom and its Association with Substance Use in South African Adolescents


Do you know?

For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.  

They're uncommon sense ideas, really.

Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).

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