I would love to blame the tech companies for my addiction to my phone. But I can’t. The truth is, Silicone Valley didn’t create the urges that lead us to compulsively check our phones; they have merely exploited them. They promise to save us from our current state of unpleasantness with a tap of a finger, and now the urge to avoid has turned into the urge to pick up and scroll.
As much as we try to fight it, the urge to pick up and scroll is clearly winning. One recent study of American adults found that, on average, people checked their phones 344 times per day.
If we want to find a better alternative to mindlessly picking up our phones, we need to understand why we’re reaching for them in the first place. Only then can we figure out a better solution to whatever need we’re trying to fill by scrolling.
One obvious culprit is boredom. We hate feeling bored. Luckily, we now have endless entertainment available at our fingertips that promises to pacify this unpleasant feeling.
Or perhaps we’re not so lucky? After all, if we can now instantly relieve our boredom, why aren’t we any happier?
While an infinite supply of instant entertainment might seem like a good thing, there are two significant tradeoffs that come with it:
Instant entertainment makes it harder to tolerate temporary boredom
Watching funny videos on YouTube can be a convenient way to avoid the unpleasant feeling of being bored—for now. But this happy feeling is fleeting. It doesn’t give us a sense of meaning or joy that lasts.
Even worse, it can make it harder to tolerate being bored in the future. The ability to tolerate unpleasant feelings and experiences is a skill that’s best cultivated through practice. If we automatically turn to our devices whenever we find ourselves in a waiting room or a check-out line or even stopped at a red light, we miss out on this critical frustration tolerance training.
Engaging our attention in more meaningful things takes more effort than scrolling Instagram or watching cat TikToks. The more ingrained our habit of mindlessly turning to our devices becomes, the more effort we will need in order to make a different choice. And if we’re already spending more time on our devices than we want to, we don’t want to make it harder to stay off them.
Instant entertainment makes it harder to reflect on the deeper causes of discontent in our lives
The bigger problem with having entertainment always available at our fingertips isn’t just that it makes it harder to tolerate temporary boredom. It’s what we lose when we fail to sit still with our own thoughts. We miss what boredom has to teach us.
Sometimes we get bored when we’re doing something that’s too easy or too hard or seems pointless. But other times our sense of boredom is more existential. Pulling out our phones as soon as we get to the waiting room or back of the line doesn’t give us a chance to even question why we might be feeling bored in the first place or whether it suggests we should consider making a change in our lives. Watching quick reels might be entertaining, but it will do nothing to address the deeper issue of why we feel a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose.
It’s important to recognize, however, that our devices haven’t caused these problems; they’ve merely exacerbated them. Our problem isn’t just that we have so many ways to avoid feeling bored. It’s that we want so badly to avoid ever feeling bored in the first place.
Looking for the solution
And because our difficulty tolerating boredom and reflecting on our discontent runs deeper than our devices, the solutions need to go beyond just turning off our notifications or going on a temporary “digital detox.”
Our goal can’t be simply to stop picking up our phones when we encounter a moment of stillness. If that’s our only goal, then we’ll just turn to something else to avoid the unpleasant feeling of boredom. As author Oliver Burkeman puts it, “what we think of as distractions aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.”
In fact, people can get so desperate to distract themselves from their present reality that they will voluntarily shock themselves rather than wait fifteen minutes with nothing to do. A digital detox might make it easier to temporarily avoid one type of distraction, but what we really need is to learn to tolerate the stillness.
We need to do more than just reconsider how we use our devices. We need to redefine how we spend our days—and how we spend our lives.
Try it this week. When you feel an urge to pull out your phone or scroll on social media, pause for just one minute and be still. Don’t just look inward; also look outward and upward. Instead of asking what you can do, ask the deeper questions of how you can live, how you can love, and how you can connect.