How Teenagers Use Free Time Affects Mood

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Adolescence

How Teens Use Downtime to Connect, Distract or Reflect

Different choices for how young people use free time lead to different kinds of relief.

Credit...Antonio Giovanni Pinna

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When pandemic-weary adolescents get to take a break, what should they do with themselves? The main aim, of course, should be to feel better after the break than before it. But different downtime choices lead to different kinds of relief. Adolescents (and adults) might want to reflect on the options for how they spend their free time — whether they’ve got 20 spare minutes today or can anticipate more unscheduled time in the weeks ahead.

Here’s a look at three ways teenagers tend to spend their downtime, and the particular benefits and challenges that come with each.

Young people often use their downtime to text with friends or check their social media accounts — and with good reason. Particularly under the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic, teenagers rely on these platforms to connect with peers and to keep up with headlines. Spending time online might deliver the boost of an amusing exchange with a friend, a clever meme or good news about a favorite sports team. If it does, that makes for a restorative break.

But, of course, it can go another way.

Checking in on social media or the 24-hour news cycle is the psychological equivalent of sidling up to a slot machine. Hitting the jackpot — receiving digital love from a friend or finding an encouraging update about a vaccine — feels good. Pulling the lever and losing — whether that’s your messages being “left on read,” meaning the recipient doesn’t respond, or catching a depressing headline — is pretty much bound to happen from time to time.

For teenagers, especially in the context of the pandemic, turning to social media as a way to recharge can be a high-stakes gamble. Jill Walsh, a Boston University sociologist who studies technology use among adolescents, finds that having fewer in-person interactions has left many teenagers feeling “incredibly uncertain about their friendships.” Previously tolerable ambiguity in communications can now be highly distressing. Dr. Walsh notes that “getting a text that simply reads ‘k,’” — shorthand for OK that can be read as friendly, curt or angry — “can create a huge amount of emotional labor as a kid tries to figure out what it means.”

Before defaulting to downtime scrolling, teens might weigh the possibility of seeing a mood-lifting post against the chance that they’ll run into something distressing. A well-spent break should help to ease the mind; it shouldn’t open new tabs to worry over in our mental browsers.

There’s a lot to be said for taking occasional, all-consuming mental vacations, especially during a pandemic. Research on chronic stress shows that engrossing, happy distractions, such as competing in a sport or losing oneself in a movie or a book, can help young people weather persistently difficult circumstances.

Happy distractions may be a particularly apt choice when teenagers find themselves dogged by worries about school, peers, rising Covid-19 rates or anything else. Peggy Zoccola, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University who studies the impact of stress and coping on the body, has found that ruminating over unpleasant events raises blood pressure and heart rate and triggers the ongoing release of stress hormones. Distraction, however, stops or attenuates the biological stress response. “It’s important,” she says, “to be able to recover and not always be pumping out these stress hormones.”

In fact, transporting diversions can be useful in two ways at once. According to Dr. Zoccola, they both draw our minds away from negative events that can trigger our biological stress response and at the same time pull them toward positive experiences that may prompt the release of natural mood-improving substances in the body that work much like opioids to help us feel better.

That said, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. While pleasant distractions provide valuable mental and physiological breaks from stressful conditions, “my hesitation with recommending distraction,” Dr. Zoccola said, “is that while it can get people out of the moment, if it goes on too long, that might prevent folks from addressing an issue, or might create a new one.” Teenagers can run an easy check for themselves by asking, “Are my distractions getting in the way of what I need to do?”

As a third option, young people sometimes use openings in their schedule for pursuits that are engaging, but only to a degree. Researchers use the term “soft fascination” in connection with activities that require attention but don’t entirely occupy the mind, such as spending time in nature or taking a long shower. More absorbing endeavors, such as playing a video game or solving a puzzle, recruit what’s known as “hard fascination.”

Compared to hard fascination, soft fascination uses less mental bandwidth and leaves more room for the mind to wander and reflect. Avik Basu, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan who researches soft fascination, explains that activities that “don’t swamp the mind” are more likely to be restorative because “a softly fascinating environment allows for reflection — and that’s when the problem-solving part of our brains can really get to work.”

In other words, soft fascination relieves stress by helping us close those mental browser tabs; unhurried reflection lets us sift through mental clutter, quiet internal noise and come up with fresh, useful solutions. According to Dr. Basu, “the ‘aha’ moments you have in your shower — that’s the problem-solving mechanism of the mind working. The answer just bubbles up!”

Unfortunately, for many young people, the pandemic has swept away previously routine occasions for soft fascination. Indeed, many of us have come to appreciate how much mental housekeeping we used to do as we made our daily commute or walked along a familiar route to work or school. Teenagers might now have to go out of their way to seek low-key activities when their minds feel cluttered. And they may need adults’ encouragement to do so, because simply going for a stroll or looking out a window can seem boring compared to the allure of online catching up or consuming distractions.

When it comes to self-restoration, we all have options — with connection, distraction and reflection being chief among them. Caring for our mental and emotional health matters now even more than usual, so it’s essential for people of all ages to take the breaks that best address the needs of the moment.

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