The Mod Squad study did confirm Linda Caldwell’s hypothesis that teens turn to drinking and drugs because they’re bored in their free time. After the study’s completion, Caldwell wondered if there was a way to help kids fend off boredom. Rather than just badgering kids with the message “Don’t Do Drugs,” wouldn’t it be more effective to teach them how else to really enjoy their free time?
So Caldwell went about designing a program, driven by an ambitious question: “Can you teach a kid how not to be bored?”
Her research has shown that boredom starts to set in around seventh grade, and it increases all through twelfth grade. Intrinsic motivation also drops, gradually but consistently, through those same years. So Caldwell aimed her program at seventh graders in their fall semester.
She got nine middle school districts throughout rural Pennsylvania to sign up; over 600 children participated in the study. Teachers from these schools came to Penn State and received training in how to teach anti-boredom.
The program Caldwell created, TimeWise, did every detail right. Rather than some one-day intervention, this was an actual school class that lasted six weeks. Rather than being lectured to, the students enjoyed a workshop vibe, where they discussed their issues, problem-solved, and coached one another. Rather than merely testing these students after the course, Caldwell continued to test the long-term benefits of TimeWise, measuring the students’ boredom levels and use of time for the next three years. Every year, the students went through a booster class, to remind them of the principles and encourage them to reapply the lessons to their changing lives.
The course began with a self-examination module. The students learned the difference between being generally bored, all day long, and being situationally bored, be it when in history class or when sitting on the couch at home, watching reruns. They learned to recognize the difference in their own motivation: “Am I doing this because I actually want to, or because my mom signed me up and I have to, or because I feel pressured by friends to follow along?” They spent the first week filling out time diaries, charting how they spent their time and how engaged they felt doing it all.
The researchers saw that it wasn’t just kids with lots of free time who were bored. Even the really busy kids could be bored, for two reasons. First, they were doing a lot of activities only because their parent signed them up—there was no intrinsic motivation. Second, they were so accustomed to their parents filling their free time that they didn’t know how to fill it on their own. “The more controlling the parent,” Caldwell explained, “the more likely a child is to experience boredom.”
The students spent a lot of time learning how to counter peer pressure. They went on to do a module on flow, based on the ideas of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and did a module on understanding how the element of risk made something exciting or scary. They learned to see themselves as architects of their own experience.
When I first read of Caldwell’s TimeWise, I felt jealous—I wished there had been such a program for me in seventh grade. The program was so exciting that it was simultaneously reproduced in South Africa, where children have very little to do, and it’s now being reproduced in school districts in Oregon, Utah, and urban Pennsylvania. The California Parks & Recreation Society put TimeWise on the top of its list of role models for leisure education programs.
There’s been only one problem. The kids came out of the class charged up, but by the end of spring, they weren’t dramatically different from kids who hadn’t taken the TimeWise class. “The results dissipated after the initial intervention,” Caldwell noted. “You always wish for stronger results. We got some nice results, but they haven’t lasted across the four years.” It’s really been a mystery why this great class didn’t have a huge impact.
Note that her results have statistical significance; Caldwell published them in a prestigious journal and has continued to receive grants for TimeWise. But from an ordinary person’s perspective, the results lack any “wow” factor. Compared to students not in the class, measurable boredom went down only about 3%. TimeWise students were only meagerly better at avoiding peer pressure, and they didn’t join more clubs. Though they played sports a little more and spent more time outdoors, their intrinsic motivation was no better than regular students. These kids weren’t drinking alcohol a lot—during ninth grade, they’d drank only a couple times that year, on average—but there was almost no difference on that score between the kids in the TimeWise program and the kids who weren’t. The smoking of pot and cigarettes was also almost indistinguishable between the two groups.
For the seventh-graders who started out most bored, “it didn’t seem to make a difference,” said Caldwell. It turns out that teaching kids not to be bored is really hard—even for the best program in the country.
Why didn’t TimeWise have a stronger effect?
Is it possible that teens are just neurologically prone to boredom?
According to the work of neuroscientist Dr. Adriana Galvan at UCLA, there’s good reason to think so. Inside our brains is a reward center, involving the nucleus accumbens, which lights up with dopamine whenever we find something exciting or interesting or pleasurable. In a study comparing the brains of teens to the brains of adults and young kids, Galvan found that teen brains can’t get pleasure out of doing things that are only mildly or moderately rewarding.
Galvan’s experiment was quite ingenuous. She had kids, teens, and adults play a pirate video game while inside an fMRI scanner, with their heads restrained. Their arms were free to push buttons. With each successful turn of the game, they won some gold—on the screen flashed either a single gold coin, a small stack of coins, or a jackpot pile of gold.
Young kids find any sort of reward thrilling, so their brains lit up the same amount, no matter how much gold they won. Adult brains lit up according to the size of the reward: single coin, small pleasure response, big pile, big pleasure response. The teen brains did not light up in response to winning the small or medium reward—in fact, the nucleus accumbens activity dipped below baseline, as if they were crestfallen. Only to the big pile of gold did their reward center light up—and then it really lit up, signaling more activity than kids or adults ever showed.
Galvan noted that the response pattern of teen brains is essentially the same response curve of a seasoned drug addict. Their reward center cannot be stimulated by low doses—they need the big jolt to get pleasure.
But that wasn’t all that Galvan saw happening in teen brains. Their prefrontal cortex seemed to be showing a diminished response whenever their reward center was experiencing intense excitement. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for weighing risk and consequences. Explaining this, Galvan said it was as if the pleasure response was “hijacking” the prefrontal cortex. At the very moment when experiencing an emotionally-charged excitement, the teens’ brain is handicapped in its ability to gauge risk and foresee consequences.
In abstract situations, teens can evaluate risks just like adults. Given a scenario, they can list the pros and cons, and they can foresee consequences. But in exciting real life circumstances, this rational part of the brain gets overridden by the reward center.
All this fits the pattern we see in the real world, where adolescents seem sluggish in literature class, drink like fish on Saturday nights, and don’t seem to realize it’s a bad idea to put five friends on a golf cart while driving it down a steep hill with a sharp turn at the bottom.
Not all adolescents are primed like this. Galvan had her subjects fill out questionnaires that assessed how often they participated in certain risky behaviors in their own lives. She also asked them whether certain risk behaviors sounded like fun—getting drunk, shooting fireworks, and vandalizing property—or sounded merely dangerous. How they answered the questionnaires matched their neurological results: those who said risky behavior sounded like fun also had higher spikes in their brain’s reward center when they won the pile of gold in the pirate video game.
The neuroscience of risk-taking is a very advanced field, but it doesn’t offer many solutions; some teens are wired to take big risks, done deal. The mechanics of this brain wiring include a reduction in the density of dopamine receptors, which makes teens unable to enjoy mild rewards, and a simultaneous spurt in oxytocin receptors, which makes them highly attuned to the opinions of their peers. Surrounded by friends, they’ll take stupid chances, just for the thrill.
If there’s hope in this science, it comes from the few scholars who recognize that teens are only sometimes huge risk takers. In fact, there are all sorts of risks that terrify teens far more than adults. The risk of asking a girl to a dance, and getting turned down, has frozen millions of boys every year from taking that chance. Teens are so self-conscious of appearances that they wait until Christmas break to get haircuts. They feel all eyes are upon them when they raise their hand in class. They think it’s risky to show up at school wearing a new shirt nobody’s seen before. In many cases, the fear of embarrassment turns teens into weenies.
A series of experiments by Dr. Abigail Baird at Vassar captured this dichotomy perfectly. She put teens in an MRI scanner, then asked them to decide if certain concepts were a good idea or a bad idea. The good ideas were pleasantly mundane, such as “eating a salad,” or “walking the dog.” The bad ideas were grisly:
Bite down on a lightbulb
Swallow a cockroach
Light your hair on fire
Jump off a roof
Swim with sharks