New psychology research shows “digital switching” to avoid boredom often backfires

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In today’s fast-paced digital era, escaping boredom often involves turning to digital media platforms like YouTube and TikTok. However, a recent study accepted for publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General reveals a surprising twist: the very act of frequently switching between digital content to stave off boredom might actually exacerbate it. The study identifies a bidirectional, causal relationship between boredom and what it terms “digital switching,” where people rapidly skip through videos to maintain stimulation.

The study was driven by the observation that, despite the vast array of digital entertainment options available today, surveys indicate an increase in boredom among young people from 2008 to 2020. This seems contradictory: with more content at our fingertips than ever before, why are people experiencing more boredom? The researchers aimed to explore this paradox by investigating whether the behavior of rapidly switching between digital content contributes to feelings of boredom.

“Before conducting this research, I used to ‘digitally switch’ a lot (i.e., switching between and within media content). If a drama paced too slowly, I’d fast-forward. If a YouTube video became less interesting, I’d skip it,” said study author Katy Y. Y. Tam, a postdoctoral fellow at the Work and Play Lab at the University of Toronto at Scarborough.

“However, I realized I wasn’t truly engaging with or enjoying the content. I often missed plot details and spent a lot of time jumping from one video to another. Talking to others about this, I found that many people could relate to these experiences. This made me wonder how such switching behavior affects our feelings of boredom and enjoyment.”

To understand this phenomenon, Tam and her colleagues conducted a series of seven experiments involving different samples and procedures.

In the first study, involving 140 U.S. nationals, researchers aimed to confirm the hypothesis that boredom drives digital switching behavior. Participants were exposed to both interesting and boring video sets and had the freedom to skip between videos.

The findings confirmed that participants switched more frequently between videos when they were bored. Specifically, the boring condition saw a significantly higher number of skips compared to the interesting condition. This demonstrated that boredom indeed prompts individuals to switch digital content in an attempt to alleviate their discomfort.

The second study investigated perceptions of digital switching and involved 231 undergraduate students from the University of Toronto Scarborough. Through hypothetical scenarios, participants were asked to predict their levels of boredom, satisfaction, attention, and meaning in both switching and no-switching conditions.

The results revealed a clear belief among participants that switching would reduce boredom. This lay perception highlighted a common misconception: while people intuitively feel that switching helps avoid boredom, they do not anticipate the potential for it to exacerbate their boredom.

In the third study, 159 undergraduate students experienced both switching and no-switching conditions with actual video content. Contrary to their predictions in Study 2, participants reported higher levels of boredom in the switching condition compared to the no-switching condition.

This finding contradicted the participants’ lay beliefs and supported the researchers’ hypothesis that digital switching, instead of alleviating boredom, actually intensifies it. The consistent increase in boredom during the switching condition emphasized the paradoxical nature of digital media consumption.

The fourth study replicated the findings of the previous studies by focusing on switching within a single video and included 166 undergraduate students. Participants could skip forward and backward within a 50-minute video in the switching condition, whereas they watched a 10-minute video without the option to skip in the no-switching condition.

Again, participants reported higher levels of boredom when they had the option to switch within the video. This further reinforced the idea that the act of switching, even within a single piece of content, contributes to increased boredom.

In the fifth study, 174 undergraduate students engaged with YouTube in a more naturalistic setting, where they could freely choose and switch between videos. Despite the greater freedom and personalized content offered by YouTube’s algorithms, participants still reported higher levels of boredom in the switching condition compared to the no-switching condition. This finding was significant as it demonstrated the paradoxical effect of digital switching in a real-world context, where content variability and user preferences are at play.

The sixth study extended the investigation to reading online articles and involved 178 U.S. nationals. Participants either read one long article or several shorter ones with the ability to switch. The findings were mixed; while there was no significant difference in boredom levels in a within-participant comparison, participants who started with the no-switching condition reported less boredom compared to those who started with the switching condition.

This suggested that the order in which conditions were experienced could influence boredom levels, with initial exposure to switching raising expectations and attentional engagement that made subsequent uninterrupted reading feel more tedious.

The seventh study, involving 175 U.S. residents, further explored the concept of opportunity cost—the feeling of missing out on other content—during digital switching. Participants watched videos in both switching and no-switching conditions, and their perceived opportunity cost was measured. The findings showed that participants felt a higher opportunity cost in the switching condition, which contributed to their increased boredom.

The order effect observed in Study 6 was also replicated: participants felt more bored in the no-switching condition if it followed the switching condition. This suggested that initial exposure to switching raised their desired level of attentional engagement, making the no-switching experience feel comparatively dull.

In summary, across these seven studies, the researchers consistently found that digital switching behavior, driven by the desire to escape boredom, paradoxically leads to increased boredom. Participants’ beliefs that switching would alleviate boredom were contradicted by their actual experiences, which showed heightened boredom in switching conditions across various media forms and contexts.

“Take your time before hitting the fast-forward or skip button, and find ways to stay focused while watching videos,” Tam advised. “Our research shows that while people fast-forward or skip videos to avoid boredom, this behaviour actually intensifies boredom. It also makes their viewing experiences less satisfying, less engaging, and less meaningful. Just as we pay to have an immersive experience in a movie theatre, enjoyment comes from immersing oneself in videos rather than swiping through them.”

But the study, like all research, has limitations. For instance, the sample primarily consisted of university students and online recruits, which may limit the generalizability of the findings across broader demographics. Future research should include more diverse participant groups to validate these results. Understanding the underlying mechanisms, such as the role of opportunity cost and attentional engagement, requires further investigation to develop more effective strategies for managing boredom in the digital age.

“Researchers have observed a historical increase in boredom among young people (Gu et al., 2023; Weybright et al., 2020),” Tam said. “I’m curious to understand why, especially given the easy access to entertainment these days. This increasing trend is concerning because boredom is linked to many negative mental health, learning, and behavioral outcomes. Our research aims to understand the relationship between digital media use and boredom.”

The study, “Fast-forward to boredom: How switching behaviour on digital media makes people more bored,” was authored by Katy Y. Y. Tam and Michael Inzlicht.

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