Killing time: boredom and young people

Dr Johanne Miller, University of the West of Scotland
RSE Personal Research Fellowship awardee

Dr Johanne Miller. Photograph: Ian Georgeson Photography

A prisoner banging their head off a wall (Bengsston, 2012), a gang member initiating a fight (Miller, 2018), or a young person taking drugs and alcohol (Willging, 2014); are all examples of young people reacting to the experience of boredom. Children’s and young people’s mental health has declined over the last decade. During the pandemic, we know that experiences of boredom intensified, resulting in more young people experiencing isolation and mental health problems than ever before. However, there is still a shortage of knowledge on boredom and the strategies young people use to alleviate it.

In previous research (Miller, 2015) asking why young people engage in criminal activities or risky behaviours, a consistent answer was that they: “were bored”, “had nothing to do”, and “were killing time”. There are different types of boredom: situational and experiential. For these young people, it was not situational boredom – which can be alleviated with activity or action – they were experiencing, but existential boredom, which is a withdrawal of meaning within their lives. Their reactions to existential boredom were often a coping mechanism to disrupt the time and space they occupied. Batchelor et al.’s (2020) study of young people with no experience of the justice system but similar social structures also reported experiencing anxiety, boredom, and temporal stress. They did not engage in risky or criminal behaviours to disrupt time; however, it is unknown what their coping mechanisms were.

We have little information about boredom as a social structure within young people’s lives, but we do know that it can have negative consequences, often leading to feelings of being overwhelmed and/or feelings of low self-worth. Using arts-based methods, Dr Johanne Miller, University of the West of Scotland, was awarded an RSE Personal Research Fellowship to carry out a study to generate new ways of understanding lived experiences of boredom in young people’s lives. Through carrying out a comparative study of those who have experience of the criminal justice system and those who do not, Dr Miller hopes to learn about the different coping mechanisms young people use and how the systems they operate in affect their experiences. Part of Dr Miller’s study has involved working with young people to create collages about boredom with artistic renditions of boredom they have experienced and their coping strategies. The images created will inform the development of engaging infographics, which will be circulated to organisations that work with young people. Seminars and workshops will also be offered to academics, youth practitioners, and policymakers to share the findings and support these organisations in creating strategies to improve young people’s well-being.

A collage resulting from Dr Johanne Miller’s research
Another collage resulting from Dr Johanne Miller’s research

Dr Johanne Miller commented,

Boredom and the slowing or stopping of time is a common experience, and if we find meaning in our actions or activities, then we can alleviate boredom. It takes time for our bodies to become bored, and this is an embodied process. To understand the concept of boredom, I needed to understand its symbiosis with embodiment, meaning-making, and time and temporality. I required time to bring these concepts together and understand how they impact young people. The RSE Personal Research Fellowship has allowed me to take time away from teaching to further my understanding, develop different ways of generating knowledge, and, most importantly, start to disseminate the findings. The award will also help advance my career, as connection with the RSE has enabled me to develop new networks and have a wider impact on policy and practice.”

Following the completion of this study, Dr Miller aims to apply for additional funding to enable her to work within youth-offending institutions, residential units, and detention centres to explore the impact of boredom within these institutions. 

References:

Batchelor, S., Fraser, A., Whittaker, L. and Li, L., 2020. Precarious leisure:(re) imagining youth, transitions and temporality. Journal of Youth Studies23(1), pp.93-108.

Bengtsson, T.T., 2012. Boredom and action—Experiences from youth confinement. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography41(5), pp.526-553.

Miller, J 2018, Boredom and the buzz: ‘its all about killing time” Howard League for Penal Reform: Early Career Academics Network Bulletin, no. 40, pp. 3-9. https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/conference-ECAN-bulletin-December-2018.pdf

Miller, J (2015) In Every Scheme There is a Team: A Constructivist Grounded Theory of Gangs in Glasgow. Unpublished Thesis. University of the West of Scotland.

Willging, C.E., Quintero, G.A. and Lilliott, E.A., 2014. Hitting the wall: Youth perspectives on boredom, trouble, and drug use dynamics in rural New Mexico. Youth & society46(1), pp.3-29.

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