If you ask a tween or teenager, we grownups always have complaints. Recently, we were even bellyaching about the annoying noise of kids endlessly flipping plastic water bottles, trying again and again to do it just so to get the bottle to land straight up on its bottom.
What we’ve forgotten is that for once they’re not on their phones—the phones we’re normally wringing our hands about. And, certainly, we should be concerned about too much screen time.
Consider, in addition to all our other worries about the effects of technology, that research shows that boredom leads to more creativity. Who can get bored with a device that offers worlds of music, games, instant answers, and endless connection to friends?
In other words, where have all the daydreams gone?
Kids may not think creativity matters much, especially if they don’t consider themselves artistic types. But creativity is a life skill, too, no matter what they wind up doing.
“We need kids who will be able to think outside the box. We need kids to come up with novel ways of looking at problems,” says Richard Rende, psychologist and co-author of Raising Can-Do Kids. Boredom makes the space for that. Rende says that when kids “get in the habit of finding ways to make their boredom go away, they will be training themselves in the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and innovation skills that they will need in the future.”
What can parents do, then, to make room for this important sort of thinking to blossom? Of course, sometimes we just need to limit the technology usage. Our kids won’t always like that. Rende cautions us to be understanding, though. “Rather than getting annoyed at kids, or chastising them for being bored since they have so much stuff these days to entertain them, simply treat it as a chance to encourage them to do something they don’t typically do.”
We can offer suggestions about offline activities, Rende says. But “the real thing is to foster these moments as chances for your kids to find their own thing to do.”
Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives and author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Survive (And Thrive) in their Digital World, agrees that “we have to forcibly unplug them sometimes.” Our job is much more complex than always saying no to screens, with all the effects of technology on everyday life. Heitner says our parenting role should be that of a mentor, not merely a gatekeeper. We need to help kids understand that not all screen time is created equal — some is for schoolwork, some is for social connection, some allows for creativity, and some is just relaxing fluff.
Instead of just imposing flat limits on the amount of screen time for tweens and teens, Heitner says we should look at what they’re doing online, and “at creativity versus consumption because ‘screen time’ is kind of a meaningless term these days.”
Kids can be creative in front of a screen—it’s not just passive entertainment.
Those creative pursuits may include making videos, composing music, building their own games, and even writing fan fiction. “Sometimes we are snobs if our kid isn’t writing a play in iambic pentameter or composing classical music,” says Heitner, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not being creative.”
Creative online work can also build an online social community for like-minded tweens and teens. Instead of kids just consuming content from their favorite sites or YouTubers, encourage your child to be an active contributor, suggests Heitner. “The more your kid is a fan of a certain genre, the more you hope they’re contributing back. Maybe your kid is a fan of Minecraft videos. Perhaps they should be making some Minecraft videos and teaching other people what they’ve learned.”
That might not be what we had in mind, just like an hour of water-bottle-flipping might not be what we have in mind for our kids’ offline time. But here’s the thing about creativity—it’s not supposed to be what we expect. It’s supposed to be innovative, startling, stretching. Sometimes it’s us parents that need to stretch a little, too.