Yes Really, Let Your Kids Be Bored – It's Good For Them

Next time they say they're bored, take a leaf out of psychiatrist Dr Carl Marci's book.
Anastasia Babenko via Getty Images

When was the last time your child told you they were bored? The past hour? The past five minutes? Chances are it was pretty recently.

Most parents become pretty adept at staving off boredom with various distractions for their kids – whether that’s arts and crafts, imaginative play, video games or their favourite TV show.

But psychiatrist and author Dr Carl Marci says letting your kids figure out how to keep boredom at bay could be far more beneficial than stepping in for them.

When his children tell him he’s bored, for example, he’ll tell them it’s good for their brains to be bored. He’ll then urge them to go and figure out how to deal with it – but without technology or something connected to the internet.

“They get mad at me,” Dr Marci tells HuffPost UK, “but after a few minutes, they start to creatively solve their problems or distract themselves with social interaction or play.”

The benefits of boredom

Dr Marci, who authored the book Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age, says there are a few benefits to letting kids get bored. The main one is self-regulation and emotional control.

He says the major issue with too much media use and screen time at an early age is that children learn to use media as a “mood regulator”.

“So the more access to internet connected devices and screens with content designed primarily to capture a child’s attention and engage them as long as possible, the more that kids learn they don’t have to ever be bored,” he explains.

Key to emotion regulation is a healthy prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us manage our emotions. But it is incredibly immature at an early age.

While screen time might save you some serious battles when out and about, turning to devices too often could, over time, mean other negative emotions such as frustration, loneliness and anger become difficult for your child to tolerate.

They might then learn to turn to technology to feel better no matter what the root cause. And as a result, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t have to work very hard.

Dr Marci likens this part of the brain to a muscle that you either “use or lose” – and by distracting a child constantly with screens, “the child loses an opportunity to grow a key part of their brain used for emotional control,” he explains.

Instead of learning how to manage emotions by themselves or with others through expression, play and other healthy behaviours, “children learn to ignore their emotions or distract themselves with screens,” says the psychiatrist.

This can lead to what psychologists call emotional disregulation – and parents call a temper tantrum – when they get bored and screens aren’t available to them.

What’s more, it becomes a vicious circle because parents end up giving their kids more screen time instead of less to try and curb the outbursts.

This can “rewire their brains,” says Dr Marci, and can even set them up “for future ADHD, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse,” he suggests.

So what can parents do?

The key question is: what now? Should we be thinking twice before giving kids screens on car trips and other journeys where boredom is most likely to strike?

“Traveling with young children is hard and I am not saying that children should never have screen time. We know that screen time effects are cumulative, and the goal is to moderate both the quantity and quality of media use,” says the expert.

If you know a trip is coming up, he advises to make sure your child has less screen time in the days leading up to it so that it is experienced as a reward rather than as “extra” screen time.

And next time your kid is bored, perhaps let them mull over how they can relieve that boredom without the need for screens.

“The goal is to foster more healthy responses to negative emotions and allow children to exercise a key part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, related to self-control,” he continues.

“And we know that there is no such thing as too much self-control, but too little leads to future problems in life.”