When Kids Spend Time Doing Nothing: How to Avoid Empty Calorie Time

empty calorie time, time management, boredom, wasting timeI couldn’t think of a better title for this article, but had to address an issue that has come up a number of times at my speaking engagements, in reader emails to Radical Parenting and in my own life:

Does it seem like we are spending more and more time doing absolutely nothing?

It is amazing to me that with all of our devices and distractions—Xboxes, iPads, YouTube, Facebook, Texting and more, we seem to be spending hours and hours doing something and then realizing later that it was a complete waste of time.

I hear this from parents more and more. It sounds like this:

“My son spends hours in his room. I ask him what he is doing and he says, ‘nothing.’ When prodded further he admits that he spent a little time listening to music, a little time futzing with his computer settings and a little time, well, he forgets. It doesn’t bother me if he wants to play a game, or call friends. I just want him to do something.”

I call this kind of time spent and these types of activities ‘empty calorie’ because there is no purpose or benefit. I find that I am constantly being sucked into activities—or non-activities where hours flitter away and nothing is accomplished or felt. However, it is important to note that play time is not ’empty calorie’ time. Having fun, doing sometime to lift your mood or enjoying yourself is not ’empty calorie’ time.

Facebook is a perfect example of a potentially ’empty calorie’ activity. Sometimes spending time on Facebook is beneficial for kids—they chat with friends, get updates on what is going on with distant relatives and watch funny videos. Other times, however, Facebook is simply a giant, nutrition-less time suck. They look at albums they have seen a thousand times before, read other people’s wall posts just to make themselves feel FOMO (fear of missing out) and generally waste time clicking around on nothing.

‘Empty calorie’ time is also not mind-wandering time. It is actually very important for our kid’s brains to have time to wander. Recent studies have shown that during mind-wandering time our brain completes essential activities for growth and recuperation.

‘Empty calorie’ time is typically exhaustive. Meaning, our kids spend hours doing something and come out of the activity feeling drained. It’s interesting that it can take more energy to do nothing than to do something. After talking with many kids about how and why they are actually sucked into ’empty calorie’ activities, I have learned that they do this because they are either:

  • Too tired to do anything productive.
  • Want to stop working, but feel to guilty to take a real break.
  • Are bored.
  • Are procrastinating from a project or activity that they dread.

The reasons why they get into ’empty calorie’ time are actually essential for knowing how to avoid it. Think about the last few times you or your teen have experienced ’empty calorie’ time. What caused it? We can actually plan ahead and take precautions so you or your child knows what to do the next time it happens. In fact, simply talking to your kids about ’empty calorie’ activities and making them aware of the difference between doing nothing, doing something, mindwandering and playing is great for their own self-awareness.

1)    Help them make a list of activities that always get them excited, motivated or in a good mood. This list will look different for everyone and sometimes it takes a little creativity. For some reason organizing my make-up drawer always makes me feel productive. For my mom, listening to oldies on high volume can get her re-energized. Think of 3 activities that help get them energetic and keep the list on hand (I have a word document in my computer).


2)    Plan breaks. When we feel like we have to keep working, no work ever gets done. I know it seems silly, but teens and kids actually need to be taught how to take restorative and well-paced breaks.


3)    Make an anti-boredom list. I have a list of funny websites, logic games and people to call when I feel bored. This really helps me avoid mindless Facebook checking or channel surfing.


4)    Learn to break difficult projects into small chunks. The best way to get over a project you do not like is to break it into 10 minute small projects. Teach your teen how to do this. If they can do just 10 minutes at a time or start on a small part of the project they will often have enough momentum to keep going.

As more and more devices, games and social networks enter into our lives we have to protect our time. Being aware of and taking steps to avoid ’empty calorie’ time not only can make us more productive, but can also make sure we only spend our time doing things that make us happy—not sap our energy.

This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.



Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering




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