Does this sound like you? You sit at the desk in your bedroom with your biology book open in front of you, trying to study for a test. At the same time, you're plugged into your iPod, listening to music. Your laptop is also on, open to your Facebook page and Skype. And if those weren't enough things vying for your attention, every couple of minutes you're interrupted with a text message, to which you quickly respond.
You might see this as just a normal study session. But while it may very well be common, it's certainly not "normal."
"Our minds are designed to focus on one thing at a time," states David Levy, Ph.D., professor at the School of Information at the University of Washington. "We don't function well when we're trying to attend to multiple things at once."
All of these "technological interruptions," as Levy refers to them, are part of a much larger issue in our society—that of "information overload." We have more information coming at us than we can realistically process.
"There are only so many details in anyone's life that can be handled comfortably," says Deborah Barreau, Ph.D., associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "When that limit is exceeded, circuits begin to shut down. We refuse to process anymore." Too much information can make you feel anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated and confused, Barreau says.
The road to overload
The information we're talking about here includes the "social information" communicated through digital media—instant messaging, social networking sites, text messaging, etc., as well as the facts, data, opinions and reports encountered through television, books and magazines.
In one sense, information overload is not new. Ever since the printing press was invented, people have complained about having too much to read. However, Levy says, "Information overload is a far greater problem today than it ever was in the past." This is directly related to advances in technology.
Computers have allowed scientists to produce, analyze and compile data at speeds never dreamed of before. The human race has produced more knowledge in the last 30 years than in all the previous 5,000 years combined.
The development of the Internet, starting in the mid-1990s, allowed information to be easily published and accessed by just about anybody. "The World Wide Web has provided us access to billions of pages of information, increasing the number of people whose thoughts we encounter and exposing us to more ideas than ever before," notes Lark Birdsong, an information professional and Web search trainer in Denver, Colorado.
Digital technologies have made it possible to be connected to information sources 24/7. Each day you may have hundreds or even thousands of e-mail messages, instant messages, YouTube and Flickr downloads, text messages and posts on social networking sites competing for your attention. There's also round-the-clock programming to view on TV.
"The sheer volume of information being published today far outstrips our capacity to deal with it," Levy says.
Too much insignificant information
As a student, you may agree that you're overloaded with information—too much reading every night for school! But really, the bigger issue is what you're being exposed to outside the classroom.
Trying to keep up with all the information coming at you electronically from the media and your friends can take up a lot of your time—time you might not have to spare. For instance, you can get so caught up surfing the Web or watching TV that it ends up consuming time you should have used for something more important, like homework, prayer, Bible study, talking with your family or sleep.
Often the challenge is trying to figure out what information is significant. You might do a Google search on a particular subject and get thousands or even millions of search results. "Now you have to decide: Which of them are you going to read, and which are you going to ignore? The very act of choosing takes time," says Levy. You might have to sift through a lot of insignificant information before you get to anything useful.
Remember that anyone can start a blog or Web site or share his or her perspectives on online forums and chat rooms. As a result, much of the information on the Internet is just opinion or is outright false. Yet it might be billed as "fact."
"It can be difficult to know which Web sites are trustworthy and which ones aren't, discern bias and point of view, and assess the validity of information being presented," states Birdsong. You may encounter a lot of conflicting information, which can make you feel frustrated and confused.
There are particular concerns with the social information. Electronic messaging can be distracting, waste a lot of time and destroy productivity. Research has shown that students' grades suffer when they text a lot or visit social networking sites while studying.
Barreau's students often text and send "tweets" while she lectures. She says that not only is this behavior disrespectful, but "their attention is divided, and they're not getting as much out of class. Most people don't multitask very well. We generally deal with things better sequentially, rather than try to do three or four things at once."
Excessive use of electronic communications can also hinder your development of appropriate interpersonal skills, adds Patricia Leavy, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. Her concern is that many young people today are learning how to interact with others, including how to make friends and date, largely by technological means, as opposed to face-to-face interaction.
"There's a big difference between communicating with a thousand people you don't really know on Facebook versus what it means to meet people face-to-face, read people's gestures, learn to get to know each other and communicate verbally," she says. With the "virtual relationships," people just exchange bite-sized tidbits of information—not the building blocks of solid relationships.
Another negative lesson teens are learning, Leavy says, is that it's normal to be at the dinner table texting with your cell phone or listening to your iPod. "This sends the message to others, particularly those who are at least a generation older than you, that you don't care about them, because, if you did, you'd be paying attention to them rather than using your technology."
The antidote to information overload
While information overload is a widespread problem in our society, it need not take over your life.
• For starters, take an honest assessment of your priorities. Are you spending so much time on the Internet that your grades are suffering? Are you routinely using your phone or laptop when you're with friends and family? Do you spend more time IMing your friends than you do talking with them in person?
"I like Facebook," admits Birdsong, "but it doesn't replace face-to-face interactions." Be very clear with your goals in life and manage your information intake around that. If your priorities are misaligned, make the necessary changes. This may mean limiting your Facebook usage or no longer taking your phone to class.
• Decide which information streams and social sites are most valuable to you and focus on those. Don't try to keep up with them all.
• When you need to do research, ask your reference librarian for help. Most librarians are happy to educate people about efficient Internet search techniques, which will help you get better refined results and waste less time. Your library will also allow you access to databases of published articles, providing you with information that is generally more accurate compared to what's available on free-access Web sites.
• Set aside a regular "focus time" each day when you disconnect from technology. This might be for a couple hours every afternoon or before you go to bed. Turn off the computer and TV, and ask friends to not call or text you during this time. You can use this time to do homework, pray, study the Bible and just relax without any distractions.
In addition, you should avoid using your iPod and cell phone at the dinner table or whenever you're in the company of others. Give the people you're with your full attention. Show an interest in their perspectives and insights. Birdsong concludes, "The truth is, some of the most significant information doesn't come from things, but from people." VT