[Paleopsych] "Why are you bored?": an examination of psychological and social control causes of boredom among adolescents. Linda L. Caldwell; Nancy Darling; Laura L. Payne; Bonnie Dowdy.
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"Why are you bored?": an examination of psychological and social control causes
of boredom among adolescents. Linda L. Caldwell; Nancy Darling; Laura L. Payne;
Journal of Leisure Research, Spring 1999 v31 i2 p103(1)
The purpose of this study was to better understand the causes of boredom using
psychologically based and social control models of boredom . For this study, 82
8th grade students completed two questionnaires, a face to face interview, and
participated in a four day activity diary over a two week period of time.
Hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) was used to assess the extent to which
adolescents' level of boredom differed depending upon their reason for
participating in the activity and on the individual characteristics they
brought to the situation. Both psychological and social control variables
helped to explain boredom. The results are discussed from a developmental and
Research on boredom has spanned decades and has been approached from a variety
of philosophical, sociological, and psychological perspectives. During this
time, discussion in the literature has addressed causes and consequences of
boredom. The only apparent consensus is that boredom is a complex phenomenon.
Understanding boredom during adolescence is even more challenging because
boredom is compounded by concomitant developmental processes. These
developmental issues, such as autonomy development, changing cognitive
abilities, evolving relationships with parents, and the liminal quality of
behavioral demands, make boredom particularly salient for youth. In addition,
the amount of free time available to adolescents and the increasing control
they have over this time compared to their childhood years suggests free time
may provide a new challenge to adolescents as they take on increasing
responsibilities for structuring their own time.
The increasing focus on boredom during adolescence is, in part, due to the fact
that boredom has been linked with a number of problem behaviors such as alcohol
and drug abuse (Iso-Ahola & Crowley, 1991; Orcutt, 1985), higher rates of
dropping out of school (Farrell, Peguero, Lindsey, & White, 1988) and vandalism
(Caldwell & Smith, 1995). Clearly, none of these behaviors are developmentally
or societally productive. Thus, the general purpose of this study was to better
understand the phenomenon of adolescent boredom in free time.
Theories of Boredom
Existing research provides us with an understanding of the associated outcomes
of boredom in free time, but the body of knowledge is less clear regarding the
causes of boredom. Two major perspectives help us understand the causes of
boredom : psychological theories and social control theories. These theories
are discussed in the following section, and where appropriate, developmental
considerations are addressed.
Psychological explanations suggest that boredom stems from (a) a lack of
awareness of stimulating things to do in leisure (Iso-Ahola & Weissinger,
1987); (b) a lack of intrinsic motivation, and in particular
self-determination, to act on the desire to alleviate boredom (Iso-Ahola &
Weissinger, 1987; Weissinger, Caldwell, & Bandalos, 1992); and (c) a mismatch
between one's skill and the challenge at hand (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
The latter is also known as the understimulation model of boredom (e.g., Larson
& Richards, 1991).
Cognitive psychology suggests that adolescents are maturing in many ways that
might influence perceptions of boredom . As adolescents grow older, they mature
in their capacity to temper or regulate their interactions with their
circumstances (Elliott & Feldman, 1990). At lower maturation levels, once
boredom is perceived, adolescents might lack the ability to (a) identify
changes that could be made and/or (b) perceive ways in which they could act on
the desired change. In addition, the speed, efficiency, and capacity of basic
cognitive processes change (Keating, 1990) which might contribute to being
understimulated, and thus bored. For example, some tasks may seem to be
repetitive as cognitive abilities mature, thus producing feelings of boredom.
Psychologically based theories, however, have been based on adult populations
and have not addressed the specific developmental tasks of adolescence. The
developmental process of autonomy development (Steinberg, 1990), for example,
suggests that boredom may be a response of resistance to external control, such
as the influence of parents or other adults (Larson & Richards, 1991). This
type of boredom might occur in situations when an adolescent is unable to
exercise autonomy and at the same time is unable to physically leave the
situation; in this case the adolescent may disengage psychologically through
the experience of boredom (Eccles et al., 1993). Social control and resistance
theories of boredom imply that boredom becomes a standard means of
communication that turns into a routine aspect of the adolescent culture. This
perspective suggests that free time activities that are structured by the
dominant adult culture might be likely to produce boredom in adolescents
because they interfere with the normative developmental impetus towards
autonomy (Shaw, Caldwell, & Kleiber, 1995). For example, Larson and Richards
(1991) stated that ". . . the frequent occurrence of boredom in adolescence is
a product of subcultural (or personal) resistance to adult and school
authority. . ." (p. 422).
Related to the social control perspective, the forced-effort theory of boredom
(Larson & Richards, 1991; O'Hanlon, 1981) indicates that boredom occurs when
individuals are forced to expend cognitive energy and effort on tasks construed
as homogeneous. For adolescents, this boredom response might occur when
parents, teachers, or coaches obligate routine, practice activities. In this
case, participation is extrinsically motivated either by social pressure or by
their instrumental role in the attainment of intrinsically motivated goals.
Both the forced-effort and social control/resistance theories of boredom play a
role in adolescent boredom in a school context (Larson & Richards, 1991). Thus,
extracurricular activities may offer opportunities for adolescents to engage in
compelling leisure experiences. Obligatory activities, however, may undermine
the potential for adolescents to exercise autonomy and increase the likelihood
that adolescents experience boredom within these settings. As adolescents are
in transition from a position of dependence on parents to one of increased
freedom (i.e., autonomy), the negotiation and balance of decision making power
is often problematic (Steinberg, 1990). Steinberg (1990) suggested that until a
mutually comfortable position between parent (or by extension, other adults)
and adolescent is achieved, tensions are likely. Thus if an adolescent
perceives too much control of his or her actions by parents, social control
theory suggests that boredom is a typical response.
This study used psychologically based and social control models to extend our
understanding of adolescent boredom in leisure. The study has two levels of
analysis, individual difference and situational. Table 1 summarizes the
theories of boredom , related variables in this study, and corresponding
hypotheses. At the individual difference level, we examined two variables that
reflect differences in responses to boredom across situations (i.e., leisure
experiences). The first variable, parental monitoring, reflects the social
control/resistance model of boredom. The second individual difference variable
was level of intrinsic motivation and reflects psychological theories of
boredom. Both of these variables allowed us to take into consideration factors
that might contribute to boredom across situations. At the situational level,
we examined factors associated with boredom within an individual by examining
three possible reasons for participating in a particular activity: Had to,
wanted to, and had nothing else to do. Each reason stemmed from either a social
control or psychologically based perspective. These variables are described in
more detail below.
Individual Difference Variables
The general level of intrinsic motivation perceived by the adolescent and the
general level of parental monitoring of the individual are important because of
their potential to moderate or mediate the experience of boredom . Weissinger
et al. (1992) suggested, for example, that individual difference variables such
as desire for intrinsic rewards will generalize across situations, and thus,
are important considerations in understanding boredom . In this study,
intrinsic motivation was important because of its (a) recognized importance to
leisure experience (e.g., Gunter, 1987; Iso-Ahola, 1979; Neulinger, 1981) and
(b) relationship to the experience of boredom from a psychological perspective
(e.g., Weissinger et al., 1992).
The general level of parental monitoring perceived by an adolescent taps the
extent to which the adolescent exercises autonomy and self-determination in
leisure experiences versus the extent to which activities are controlled and
monitored by parents. Although this variable is new to the leisure literature,
previous work has suggested that level of parental monitoring does have some
influence on the leisure of adolescents (e.g., Caldwell & Darling, in press),
especially engagement in problem behavior and substance use (Steinberg,
Fletcher, & Darling, 1994).
Situation Level Variable
At the situational level, we assessed the reason for participating in the
activity. Three reasons, "I had to," "I wanted to," and "I had nothing else to
do," directly reflect common reasons given by adolescents to explain their
behavior. Each of these reasons relates to a psychologically or social control
based theory of boredom. The "had to" situation reflects the feeling that
someone (parent, teacher, coach, etc.) exerted influence on the adolescent
producing a feeling of obligation. Boredom associated with this reason is
thought to be a result of the social control/resistance models of boredom . The
"wanted to" situation reflects self-determination and intrinsic motivation. We
viewed the role of self-determination and intrinsic motivation as indicative of
the psychologically based theories. The "nothing else to do" situation suggests
a lack of stimulation, lack of optimal arousal, and/or lack of awareness of
leisure opportunities, stemming from the psychologically based theories.
Contexts of Boredom in Free Time
We felt that it was important to understand the context of boredom . Different
leisure contexts and activities may be associated with different outcomes
(Caldwell & Darling, in press; Caldwell, Smith, & Weissinger, 1992b). In
addition, Weissinger et al. (1992) suggested that a study examining both
context and dispositional factors with regard to boredom in leisure was an
important "next step" study. Their finding was supported by the work of Larson
and Richards (1991) who concluded that both context and individual difference
variables were important in understanding adolescent boredom in and out of
school. Thus, we felt it important to understand whether or not differences in
boredom existed depending on the type of activity.
This study sought to understand the causes of boredom in free time among
adolescents using both the psychological and social control/resistance theories
at two levels of analysis (individual and situational; see Table 1). We
predicted that regardless of level of analysis, when adolescents felt as though
they were autonomous and self-determined they would be less bored. Conversely,
when adolescents felt controlled, they would experience boredom. Thus, at the
situational level we hypothesized that the "want to" situation would produce
the lowest levels of boredom; we could not hypothesize which of the other two
reasons for participation would better predict boredom . At the individual
difference level we hypothesized that high levels of perceived parental
monitoring would be predictive of higher levels of boredom. We also
hypothesized that low levels of intrinsic motivation would predict higher
levels of boredom. We examined the relationship of context to level of boredom
in post hoc analysis and thus made no predictions.
Methods and Procedures
Data for this investigation came from phase two of a three year longitudinal
study conducted in a middle school in central Pennsylvania. In phase [TABULAR
DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] two, all students in grades six through eight were
asked to volunteer to complete an in-school questionnaire about parents, free
time, friends, school achievement, identity, and self esteem. The present study
used data from all grade eight students who volunteered to participate in an
extended study. As part of this extended study, grade eight students who
participated in the in-school survey were contacted by phone and asked to
participate in a one hour in-depth interview (about dating as well as
relationships with their friends and family), participate in an activity diary
(about leisure activities), and to complete a follow-up questionnaire (about
school achievement, parental monitoring, and other parenting practices). The
data reported here come from the activity diary, in-school survey, and
follow-up survey portions of the study.
A process of active consent was used. All students whose parents signed and
returned the consent form (indicating either approval or refusal) received a
coupon for a free Dairy Queen Blizzard. If students participated in the
extended study, they received a movie ticket. For the phase two study, a total
of 600 recruitment letters were sent to all parents of middle school students.
Out of the 600, 398 parents gave permission for their children to participate
in the general study (66% response rate). Of the 398 students, 143 were in
grade eight. (Thus 72% of all grade eight students' parents provided consent.)
Of these 143 grade eight students, 86 (60% of the 143 students who were allowed
to participate) participated in the in-depth interview and follow-up survey and
82 (57%) students participated in the activity diary portion of the project.
Scheduling conflicts were the most common reason for refusal to participate in
the study. Participants predominantly identified themselves as white (92%),
with 56% of the mothers and 60% of the fathers having graduated from college.
The sample was 51% female, with a mean age of 13.2 years (s.d. = .44).
Instrumentation and Procedures
The in-school questionnaire was self-administered in large group settings
(cafeterias and study halls) and took approximately 30 minutes to complete. The
research team administered the questionnaires to the students. Questions were
asked about parents, friends, leisure, school achievement, intrinsic
motivation, boredom in free time, and problem behaviors (e.g., vandalism,
substance use, etc.). Grade eight students who agreed to participate in the
extended study completed a follow-up questionnaire at home and brought it with
them to the personal interview. These grade eight students indicated their
consent to continue their participation by filling out a sheet of paper asking
for the continued cooperation. Each student who agreed to continue was then
provided with a take-home questionnaire. Questions on the follow-up
questionnaire and interview focused on parental monitoring, information
disclosure to parents, conflict over rules, adolescent autonomy, self-esteem,
and dating. These grade eight students were contacted by a research assistant
and one-on-one interviews were scheduled with a trained interviewer. Once an
adolescent participated in the in-depth interview and completed the follow-up
questionnaire, he or she then began the activity diary component of the study.
The activity diary was used to assess the daily free time behaviors and
experiences of the adolescents in the study. The instrument was pretested on
several eighth graders to ensure the questions and response categories were
easily understood. Data were collected via phone interviews Monday through
Thursday between 7:00 and 9:30 p.m. All phone interviewers completed a two
session training program prior to the phone interviews. Participants were
randomly scheduled to be interviewed four times over a two week period,
although the two week period differed for each adolescent. Initially, data were
to be collected on weekend days and weekdays. Interviewers had a difficult time
scheduling interviews on weekend days, however, so the research team decided to
collect data on Monday through Thursday evenings only. Although this meant that
we have no weekend data, the data are more homogeneous and reflect the weekday
pattern of activities and experiences of the grade eight students in this
sample. Data collection for the activity diary portion of the study began in
March and continued through mid-June.
After a brief introduction, the adolescent who was phoned was first asked to
identify the main activity done that day between after school and dinner time,
and then between dinner time and bedtime. The interviewer chose one of the
activities to be the focus of a series of follow-up questions. The focal
activity chosen represented a leisure situation. Thus, if the adolescent did
homework and hung out with friends, the interviewer chose hanging out to be the
focal activity. In the rare case where neither of the two activities were
leisure oriented, the interviewer randomly chose one. If both activities were
leisure, one was chosen at random.
All questions asked in the activity diary interview related to the focal
activity. A variety of questions were asked, and covered topics such as
experience (e.g., boredom), with whom the youth participated, location of
activity, reason for doing activity, and so on.
The dependent variable, level of boredom for each activity, was assessed
through a single item that asked participants to respond to how bored versus
how involved they were in their activity where 1 = very involved and into it
and 5 - very bored. Although several scales exist that measure boredom and
reflect a more dimensionalized perspective, we used a single item to make it
easier to respond over the phone and to reduce the burden of response time. As
it was, the phone diary took about 20 minutes to complete. This single item
seemed adequate for our purpose, which was to simply know if they were bored or
not. Pre-test member checks indicated this was a valid measure for assessing a
13 year old's perception of whether a situation was boring or not.
Situation Level Variables. Reason for participation in the activity was
assessed using a single item "Why did you participate in the activity?"
Response choices included "had to," "wanted to," and "because there was nothing
else to do." Again, a single item was used and pre-test member checks indicated
this question and response categories adequately captured the intent of the
question. Adolescents' comments indicated this variable had high face validity.
The other situational level variable was the specific activity in which the
adolescent participated. This variable was created by classifying each activity
into one of six categories: media/home-based; school-based (e.g., arts,
sports); social; outdoor/active; miscellaneous (e.g., church service, driving
from the airport, and being interviewed); and maintenance/work. Decisions about
classification of these activities was done by the team of researchers and was
relatively straight forward. Although the categories are not mutually
exclusive, for the purposes of this study this classification scheme was
Individual Difference Level Variables. Parental monitoring was assessed by a
standard monitoring index (Patterson & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1984). Responses from
this item came from the follow-up questionnaire. In this case, we used the
mother as the parent of interest because typically mothers are more involved in
parenting at all ages, especially monitoring children (Steinberg, 1990).
Students responded to the stem "How much does your mother REALLY know" for five
situations, including: "Where you go at night? How you spend your money? What
you do with your free time? Where you are most afternoons after school?"
Responses were coded on a three point response format, with 1 represented
"knows a lot," 2 represented "knows a little," and 3 represented "doesn't know"
(Cronbach's alpha = .80).
Intrinsic motivation was measured with a nine item index adapted from Harter
(1981). This measure was comprised of the following items that were included on
the in-school questionnaire: "I like challenging work," "I like to figure
things out for myself," "I'd rather figure out mistakes on my own," "I like
solving hard problems on my own," "I know how I'm doing without a report card,"
"I like hard school subjects," "I know how I'm doing without a teacher telling
me," "I find difficult work interesting," and "I know if something is good when
I turn it in". The response format was 1 = this is not at all like me and 5 =
this is really like me (Cronbach's alpha = .86).
This paper used a three-fold analytic strategy. First, descriptive statistics
were examined. Next, inferential analyses were performed to assess the
predictors of boredom at the individual difference level and the situation
level. Finally, post hoc analyses were used to illustrate the nature of the
relationships found and to gain insight into the differences between the
predictors of boredom across activity types. Gender was included in the
analysis due to past research that has indicated significant gender differences
in all variables of interest to this study (e.g., Shaw, et al., 1995).
Analysis of the diary data was complicated by the non-independence of
observations because each adolescent reported on activities for four different
days. Hierarchical linear modeling (HLM), a technique specifically designed to
decompose variance into common source and situational variance (Bryk &
Raudenbusch, 1992), was used to assess the extent to which adolescents' level
of boredom differed depending upon their reason for participating in the
activity and on the individual characteristics they brought to the situation
(i.e., perceived parental monitoring, intrinsic motivation, and gender). In
these analyses, HLM parses variance into a situational component (differences
within an adolescent's level of boredom across different situations as
predicted by reason for participation) and an individual component (differences
between different adolescents' boredom predicted by gender, perceived parental
monitoring, and intrinsic motivation). The former category is considered
situational because reason for participation varied across different leisure
situations or occasions, while the latter reflects characteristics individuals
bring to all situations in which they participate.
HLM analyses provides two types of information: (a) an estimate of the
component of variance in the outcome measure (boredom ) that can be attributed
to individual differences between people and to differences within people
across situations, and (b) information about the extent to which each variance
component can be predicted by its respective predictors (reason for
participation, gender, intrinsic motivation, and perceived parental
monitoring(1)). These analyses rely on data from 81 individuals observed across
234 situations. Because each adolescent reported on only four different
situations, the model adopts the assumption of traditional regression models
that the relationship between reason for participation and boredom is uniform
Descriptive statistics illustrating the relationship between reason for
participation and adolescents' levels of boredom , intrinsic motivation, and
perceived parental monitoring are presented in Tables 2 and 3(2). In general,
these descriptive findings support the general pattern hypothesized to underlie
the relationships: when adolescents engage in activities because they want to
they report lower levels of boredom during the activity, and higher levels of
intrinsic motivation compared to those adolescents who are participating in
activities because they felt they had to do it or had nothing else to do.
Contrary to our hypothesis, however, perceived parental monitoring was higher
for those 8th graders who wanted to do the activity. Overall, males reported
slightly higher levels of boredom, lower levels of intrinsic motivation, and
lower levels of perceived parental monitoring than females.
Descriptive Statistics of Reason for Participation, Intrinsic
Motivation, and Parental Monitoring
Had To Wanted To To Do
Mean (s.d.) Mean (s.d.) Mean (s.d.)
Boredom 2.69 (1.34) 1.72 (.83) 2.64 (1.11)
Intrinsic Motivation 3.14 (.83) 3.44 (.87) 3.12 (.90)
Parental Monitoring 1.58 (.50) 1.63 (.49) 1.46 (.50)
N 54 208 57
Note: Boredom coded as: 1 = very involved and into it, 5 = very
Intrinsic Motivation coded as: 1 = low intrinsic motivation,
5 = high intrinsic motivation
Parental Monitoring coded as: 1 = doesn't know, 2 = knows a little
bit, 3 = knows a lot
Predicting Boredom. HLM was used to predict levels of boredom from individual
difference variables (i.e., intrinsic motivation, perceived parental
monitoring, and gender) and situational variables (i.e., reason for
participation). Reading and interpreting a conventional HLM table is not
necessarily intuitive. Table 4 reflects the results of a series of steps in HLM
that one conducts to get to the "bottom line." Although the most important
results are reported at the top of the table, critical diagnostic information
is contained in the middle and bottom. The information in the middle of the
table, which is the first piece of diagnostic information, essentially tells us
that we can proceed with our interpretation - the model contains sufficient
variance to warrant investigation.
The next question to ask is how much of the observed variation in boredom can
be explained by differences at the situation level (that is, within person),
and how much by individual differences (that is, between persons). Baseline
model statistics (lower portion of Table 4) indicate how much total variance
can be explained by the model whereas the current model shows how much our
model is actually explaining. Examination of the baseline model suggests that
23% of variance in adolescents' reported boredom can be explained by individual
differences while the remaining 77% is attributable to situational differences
plus error. The variance attributed to the individual difference level (23%) is
calculated by dividing the baseline variance due to individual differences
(.2649) by the total variance (.2649 + .9064). The [R.sup.2] scores are the
proportion of variance at that level that is explained based on the proportion
of variance that is possible. In addition to providing insight into the
relative proportion of variance attributable to situational and individual
differences, these baseline figures are also important because in an HLM
analysis the ability of variables to predict the outcome is judged against only
that proportion of the variance at the same explanatory level as the variable.
Thus in examining the proportion of variance that can be explained by
situational factors, we examined the proportion of variance within person
attributable to reason for participation. Similarly, the success of intrinsic
motivation, perceived parental monitoring, and gender in predicting boredom is
examined relative to the between person variability.
Descriptive Statistics for Perceived Parental Monitoring, Intrinsic
Motivation, and Boredom by Gender
Boredom Intrinsic Motivation Parental Monitoring
M (sd) M (sd) M (sd)
Males 2.12 (1.13) 3.28 (.87) 2.36 (.59)
Females 2.00 (1.04) 3.38 (.90) 2.50 (.48)
Boredom coded as: 1 = very involved and into it, 5 = very bored
Intrinsic Motivation coded as: 1 = low intrinsic motivation,
5 = high intrinsic motivation
Parental Monitoring coded as: 1 = doesn't know, 2 = knows a little
bit, 3 = knows a lot
[TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 4 OMITTED]
Relationship of Activity Type to Reason for Participation
Had To Wanted To To Do
% (N)(a) % (N) % (N)
Home based 8.2% (4) 51.0% (25) 40.8% (49)
School based 31.5% (23) 67.1% (49) 1.4% (1)
Social 2.9% (2) 76.5% (52) 20.6% (14)
Outdoor 1.9% (1) 85.2% (46) 13.0% (7)
Miscellaneous 17.5% (7) 60.0% (24) 22.5% (9)
Maintenance/Work 48.6% (17) 34.3% (12) 17.1% (6)
a N reflects the number of times an activity in the category was
used as the focal activity for the activity diary interview.
The top of Table 4 provides information to test our hypotheses. The estimated
coefficient for base boredom (2.056) represents the mean level of boredom
across situations. The estimated coefficients for gender, intrinsic motivation,
perceived parental monitoring, and reason for participation ("had to v. want
to" and "had to v. nothing else to do") are the regression coefficients
representing the relationship between each variable and boredom.
At the individual difference level, results indicate that adolescents with
lower intrinsic motivation and lower levels of perceived parental monitoring
are more likely to be bored (p [less than] .05). Gender does not predict
individual differences in boredom. Using data from the bottom of Table 4, we
see that 21% ([R.sup.2]) of the 23% of variance in boredom attributable to
individual differences is explained by intrinsic motivation and perceived
Because HLM cannot analyze categorical data, the three reasons for
participation were dummy-coded into two dichotomous variables, with the "had
to" condition serving as the reference category (coded 1). As indicated on the
top of Table 4, adolescents participating in an activity because they "wanted
to" were less bored than when they participated in an activity because they
"had to" (T(1,234) = 4.31, p = .000). However, no difference existed between
how bored adolescents were when they participated in an activity because they
"had to" or because they "had nothing else to do" (T(1,234) = .239, p = .812).
Ten percent ([R.sup.2], bottom of table 4) of the 77% of the within-person
(i.e., situational) variance in boredom can be attributed to adolescents'
reason for participating.
Influence of Context on Reason and Boredom. Does the reason adolescents
participate in leisure activities" vary by activity type? Descriptive
statistics presented in Table 5 suggest that they do. For outdoor, social,
school-based, and miscellaneous activities, adolescents were more likely to
"want to" do the activity, followed by "nothing else to do," and "had to"
(except for school-based activity, where "had to" was the next most common
reason). Although adolescents were more likely to "want to" participate in
school-based programs, almost one third of the adolescents reported they "had
to" participate in these activities. The only other activity with a relatively
high proportion of "had to" responses was maintenance/work activities. There
was almost a 50-50 split on reason given to participate in home-based
activities between "nothing to do" and "wanted to." Not surprisingly about 41%
of the time adolescents had nothing else to do, which was associated with some
type of home-based activity. Social and miscellaneous activities (e.g., driving
from airport) were also associated with having nothing else to do about 20-23%
of the time.
The Effect of Reason on Boredom by Activity: To gain further insight into the
nature of the relationship between reason for participation, activity type and
boredom, mean levels of boredom were calculated separately by reason for
participation within each activity type (Table 6). Again, due to the
nonindependent nature of the data, tests of significance were not performed.
Although evidence for variability in boredom across activities existed, within
each activity type the "wanted to" situation was associated with the lowest
level of boredom . These results are consistent both with the HLM analyses and
also with the interpretation that the relationship between reason for
participation and boredom is not due to motivational differences in activity
The purpose of this study was to help us better understand why adolescents are
bored by contrasting two perspectives of boredom : psychologically [TABULAR
DATA FOR TABLE 6 OMITTED] based theories and theories related to social control
and resistance. Through a series of analyses, we have painted a picture of
adolescent boredom as experienced in free time activities using information
about individual differences and situations. At the situational level, the
results were as predicted. Having no choice (i.e., feeling pressured by
external factors) or perceiving nothing to do (i.e., no optimally arousing
options) were predictive of boredom, whereas being self-determined in activity
choice (wanted to) was strongly associated with being involved (and not bored)
in the activity. Furthermore, most of the variance in boredom came from
situational factors (77% of the total possible to be explained), suggesting
that adolescents are more prone to be influenced by "the moment" rather than
those presumably stable individual difference characteristics they possess. At
the individual difference level, we found mixed support for our predictions.
In the next sections we will discuss in more detail these findings, and where
appropriate, offer developmental explanations or speculations. In particular,
we will discuss developmental issues of autonomy, identity, and attention
focusing. In some cases methodological issues will be discussed.
Social control theory suggests that adult control may be associated with
boredom in adolescent leisure experiences. We found mixed support for this
contention, although the evidence to the contrary only explains a small
proportion of variance and may be an artifact of measurement. In this study,
the lack of autonomy ("I had to") clearly was positively associated with
feelings of boredom. Perceived parental monitoring, however, was negatively
associated with boredom . In the leisure literature, the role of parents in the
leisure of adolescents has been minimally addressed. Although parental
influences on youth leisure experiences have been explored from a purchase
decision perspective (Howard & Madrigal, 1990) and from situations where
parents were spectators in adolescent competitive sports (Left & Hoyle, 1995),
neither of these studies examined consequences of parental involvement on the
outcomes (e.g., enjoyment, identity, and boredom) of adolescent leisure
In trying to understand why lower levels of parental monitoring were associated
with boredom , it is important to consider the developmental stage of these 13
year olds. At 13, it is still probably considered reasonable and safe for
parents to know where, what, and with whom the adolescent is engaged; thirteen
year olds are in the early stages of making the transition to increased freedom
in decision making. Thus, parental monitoring may not have been construed to be
lack of autonomy, but rather was seen as supportive. Parental monitoring is
associated with the authoritative style of parenting that is associated with
enhanced engagement and performance in school (e.g., Steinberg, Lamborn,
Dornbusch, & Darling, 1992). Our findings suggested that it is possible this
effect carries over into a leisure context.
Other possible reasons may explain that higher levels of perceived monitoring
by parents was associated with lower levels of boredom . First and most
obvious, it could be that a parent had facilitated the experience in the first
place, alleviating the adolescent from having to think of something to do. If
this were the case, however, there would be a fine line between a parent
facilitating an experience and a parent usurping autonomy. In other words,
rather than having the perception that parental involvement with one's actions
in free time was 'legitimate,' an adolescent might construe this involvement as
over-controlling. In this case, according to both developmental theory and the
social control/resistance theory of boredom, this situation would produce
boredom . Thus, a future research question to address would be to determine
whether level of perceived parental control was 'legitimate' or not, and how
these perceptions relate to boredom.
Measurement issues are also important to consider. Our measure of parental
monitoring was a general one, and not specific to the situation. As we saw from
the HLM analysis, situation specific reasons for participating in the activity
were stronger than individual difference variables. Finally, it is possible
that parental monitoring was not a good measure of autonomy from parents. In
sum, parental monitoring and parental influences on adolescents have not been
well addressed by leisure researchers and this study suggests that further
inquiry into this line of thinking might be productive.
Social control not only comes from parents, but also from other adults such as
coaches and leaders of extracurricular activities. About one third of the
adolescents in this study reported they "had to" do some of the school based
extracurricular activities. A frequent activity reported on during the period
of the activity diary was a play in which many adolescents participated. In
many cases, these adolescents really wanted to participate. In other cases
(almost one third of the time), they felt obligated, and as we reported,
feeling obligated to participate was linked with a higher level of boredom .
These results are consistent with Larson and Richards' (1991) finding that
adolescents reported being bored 30% of the time during extracurricular
activities. Note, however, that adolescents may want to participate in the
extracurricular activity in general, although on a particular day they may have
preferred doing something else. If further study supports these relationships,
then the structure of after school activities should be consistent with the
developmental process of autonomy formation and allow for more adolescent
ownership of these activities so that choice and self-determined behavior are
We have addressed the social control perspective considering adult structures
and obligations as the controlling factor. Another consideration for future
research is to examine whether the social control that peers have over each
other produces the same results. The interactive decision making among
adolescents in terms of deciding what to do may leave some adolescents feeling
pressured or at least feeling like they lack control in some situations
(Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984; Hultsman, 1993). Evidence from an
interpretive study on boredom of at risk youth suggested that social control
stemming from peer expectations is associated with boredom (Brake, 1997) but
this relationship is a complex one.
Nothing to Do
The lack of anything else to do as a reason to participate in an activity was
associated with higher levels of boredom than self-determined behaviors. Doing
an activity because "I wanted to" implies that through self-determination and
autonomy, adolescents are making an active choice of something do to. From a
cognitive psychology perspective, this implication suggests that (a) these
adolescents know of interesting things to do and (b) they have the skills and
ability to carry out their desires. Perceiving nothing else to do indicates the
opposite. In one sense, perceiving nothing to do might be the result of the
inability to decide what to do. Kleiber and Rickards (1984) have suggested that
although having free choice is critical to adolescents as they learn to
increase their autonomy, actually deciding what to do might be extremely
difficult. In part, Kleiber and Rickards suggested that this is because
choosing an activity can be perceived as a reflection of who one is, and
adolescents are faced with balancing the personal, peer, and parental demands
on who they perceive themselves to be. Thus, doing something because the
adolescent perceived nothing to do might actually be the result of an inability
to choose something that satisfactorily balanced these perceived demands. Or,
it could be that there was actually nothing to do.
Whether having nothing to do was real or imagined, or whether having nothing to
do was based on an inability to choose something satisfactory, we do not know.
The fact is that some adolescents in this study participated in an activity by
default. In this case, the default choice did not carry the benefits of
actively and deliberately choosing an activity. This conclusion is supported by
much of the work of Silbereisen and his colleagues (e.g., Silbereisen, Eyferth
& Rudinger, 1986) who discussed adolescent development from an "action in
context" perspective. This perspective suggests that adolescents who are active
producers of their own development (that is, make self-determined and
deliberate choices) are healthier and more productive. In our research, we
found a lack of deliberate choice undermined the leisure experience.
Larson and Kleiber (1993) suggested that because early adolescence is a
critical period where one learns to focus one's attention, leisure activities
that allow for, or even demand, self-controlled actions rather than
other-directed activities (e.g., parents or coaches) are important to
adolescent development. If adolescents could learn skills to help them direct
their attention and focus on pleasurable leisure activities, they might learn
to reduce the perception that there is nothing to do. It appears that some
adolescents evolve naturally into the ability to self-direct, control, and
focus their attentions but that others need assistance in learning how to do
this. The ability to focus and direct one's attention increases with age; early
on, adult structures actually help facilitate directed attention (Larson &
Kleiber, 1993). But, as just seen, having to do a leisure activity due to adult
structure is related to increased boredom. Thus, again, a balance needs to be
achieved between levels and type of control offered by adults. This suggests
that gauging the developmental level of the adolescent in terms of ability to
focus and control one's attention is important in judging the degree of
structure or guidance needed. Future research could address this issue.
Other perspectives that provide insight into the default choice of nothing else
to do suggest that boredom is an experience of inner conflict (e.g., Bernstein,
1975; Frankl, 1969; Keen, 1977) or ennui (e.g., Healy, 1984; Kuhn, 1976). These
types of boredom are more deep-seated, chronic, not dependent upon external
factors, and possibly more pathological. Harlow (1997) suggested that boredom
is fashionable among today's youth, citing recent song rifles as evidence
(e.g., "Boring Summer" by CIV, "Bored" by the Deftones, "Being Bored" by Merril
Bainbridge, and "Boring Life" by Far). He stated that music critics refer to
this music as "angst and roll," and defined angst as melancholy and disdain for
life's type of existential crisis. We do not know whether or not those
adolescents who reported participating in an activity because of nothing else
to do experienced this type of ennui as a way of being, or if truly there was
objectively or perceptually nothing else to do. Future research on adolescents
and boredom should not ignore this potentially productive perspective. This
research might stem from an identity formation perspective. As adolescents
mature, discover and create who they are, discovering or creating an identity
based on boredom or ennui is not developmentally productive.
Our study findings are consistent with the long held understanding that
intrinsic motivation and self determination, as hallmarks of leisure, are
antithetical to the experience of boredom and are associated with high levels
of being involved in an activity. To the extent that we can facilitate
adolescent choice of activities, mitigate adult control and structure, or
reduce feelings of obligatory participation, we can reduce feelings of boredom.
>From a developmental perspective, this autonomy enhancing potential of leisure
This study has suggested that not only is boredom a complex phenomenon,
especially when viewed within a leisure context, but also boredom might be
linked to developmental processes such as autonomy development, cognitive
agility, and possibly identity development. Future research that employs
innovative and/or mixed method approaches is needed to continue to unravel the
puzzle of adolescent boredom in leisure.
Author Identification Notes: Linda L. Caldwell, School of Hotel, Restaurant and
Recreation, Management, 201 Mateer Building, The Pennsylvania State University,
University Park, PA 16802, 814 863-8983, LindaC at psu.edu. The authors would like
to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.
1 Type of activity was not included in the HLM analysis due to its
polychotomous nature. Variables with more than three levels are not easily
dealt with in HLM analysis; thus we used type of activity in planned post hoc
2 No statistical tests are reported testing differences in mean levels across
groups due to the nonindependence of observations. That is, this analysis has
repeated measures of categorical, independent variables, for which no
statistical analysis is available.
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