How Do You Spend Your Downtime?

How Do You Spend Your Downtime?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

What do you do when you find yourself with some downtime? Do you call friends? Read a book? Check in on social media? Play video games? Exercise? Or scratch your head wondering what to do to kill time?

Do you think these choices are having a beneficial effect on your mental, emotional and physical health and well-being? Are you spending your free time wisely and effectively?

In “How Teens Use Downtime to Connect, Distract or Reflect,” Lisa Damour writes:

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.

Ms. Damour looks at three ways teenagers tend to spend their downtime, and the particular benefits and challenges that come with each. Here are excerpts from each option:

Connecting With the World Digitally

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.

Getting Lost in Distractions

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.”

Creating Space for the Mind to Wander

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.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How do you spend your downtime? In general, do you use it to connect, distract or reflect? What kinds of effects do these choices have on your life? Do you find your use of free time “restorative” or beneficial to your mental and physical health?

  • How do the different choices for downtime described by Ms. Damour resonate with your own experiences? Do you gravitate more toward “happy distractions” or “soft fascinations”?

  • Which of the benefits and challenges most accurately fit your own use of downtime? Do you agree with the author that checking in on social media is “the psychological equivalent of sidling up to a slot machine” — sometimes “hitting the jackpot” and at other times, “pulling the lever and losing”?

  • Do you feel that you wisely use your downtime? What do think of Ms. Damour’s advice, such as “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,” or “teenagers can run an easy check for themselves by asking, ‘Are my distractions getting in the way of what I need to do?’” What other recommendations would you give to peers who want to use their unscheduled time more wisely and effectively?

  • Does reading the article make you rethink how to use your downtime? What might you do differently the next time you have a few spare moments?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.