When I first began to read online about the murder of Chris Lane in Oklahoma, I stumbled swiftly into a bit of Facebook footage: The alleged murderer was glaring into a camera brandishing a rifle. As he spouted profanities, he glibly flashed what I assumed were gang signs. At once I was reminded of both the real-life slayings of gangsta rap stars by gang members and videos posted online by jihadists around the world, likewise brandishing weapons and shouting death to the Infidel, namely us. Who did the boy think he was emulating? These two role models? Others? And who was he trying to impress? The answer seems obvious: his audience. Only who did he think his audience was?

With the recent avalanche of reporting after the death of the Australian baseball player out jogging on a residential road in Oklahoma and the arrest of one white and two black teenagers, we were quickly greeted with a media hysteria regarding an innocent white boy murdered by two blacks out of “boredom,” as apparently one of the three boys told the police. Rush Limbaugh, Charles Krauthammer and others are already morally outraged at this death and shouting for blood, at least in a figurative sense.

Yet as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I have often treated patients who use the word boredom to describe an enduring and painful emotional state from which they wish desperately to escape. In therapy with these kids I have spent endless hours attempting to delve into what this word means. What are its contours of this emotion or lack thereof?

The answers I’ve found are often murky, complex, and contradictory, and yet some clear outlines and enduring impressions have emerged.  Many youths in our culture use this word to describe an inner emptiness, an emotional void, a lack of purpose or inspiration even in a world that on the surface seems safe, secure, lacking in obvious hardships. Yet the adolescent’s life is emptied of ambition and drive. Even with my help they struggle to identify any passion about what life is or could become.

In their adolescent attempts at description of an inner state, others allude to anger, despair, even rage crouching behind the boredom. Yet these feelings suggest helplessness, powerlessness, and so boredom as a word-—especially for males—becomes a catchall, a cover-up for these more unspeakable feelings, perhaps connected to a sense of living in a world turned against them. Their ambitions thwarted by failure, their desires negated by lack of option, they enter into a vicious circle of failure breeding despair fomenting lack of desire breeding failure.

In both these groups, I usually uncover a dearth of positive relationships and experiences—be they with family members or friends, in sports or hobbies, in interests or enthusiasms. In the teen’s inner landscape, a sense of exhilaration over the present and the future seems extinct. They live adrift in an empty sea, both inner and outer, even if they sometimes live surrounded by a vast array of material objects.

There is nothing to do, no one to see, nothing interesting to watch or in which to be engaged. To escape this negative emotion, many go to the mall, attend concerts, or tune into media creations like pop music or comedy or action films to give them some sort of charge, be it in the form of humor, or intrigue or action, or simply sound, all in an effort to ward off the boredom.

Be sure to read part 2.

Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.

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