To be filed under “too much of a good thing,” the relentless amount of information we create, distribute, and receive via emails, blog posts, websites, cell phones, social media, tweets, and podcasts is overwhelming. The need to process all this information leaves us fragmented, at best, and unduly stressed, for sure, as we desperately multi-task between devices to catch every last drop of data. Adding to the madness is the reality that most of the information that’s pumped into our lives is irrelevant, time-consuming, and often negative. It becomes increasingly apparent that we are no longer masters of our information, but rather the other way around.
Ask your friends, and most will probably tell you the same thing: they’re no longer happy to get all the information they’re getting. Slowly but surely, they’re dropping out of social media circles, rethinking cable TV packages, and unplugging from email—at least in the evenings. They are unloading their information overload.
And that’s a good thing. Mounting evidence shows that information overload is negatively impacting adults. But adults aren’t the only ones inundated with information. Kids are dealt the same demanding hand of data, and they’re growing up not knowing any other way to live. We need to be attentive to how kids are being impacted by this overload, before the negative effects take root.
What We Know
Our brains can process only so much information at a time. After a certain point, less information is absorbed, which can lead to poorer decision-making. Some research even suggests that the part of our brains that controls logical decisions essentially turns off when faced with too much information. (Newsweek had an article about that research last year.) This can lead to making decisions that are later regretted, or failure to make any decision at all. Maybe this is part of the reason why people tend to be happier with their choices when they have fewer options to choose from.
With the Internet, we have access to an almost limitless amount of information. Kids can get stuck in the research phase when doing assignments because there always seems to be more information to be gathered. This can prevent kids from completing assignments, cause assignments to take longer to complete, or result in dissatisfication with their work product (especially true of kids with perfectionist tendencies).
Research shows that constantly being interrupted while working (through email, texts, etc.) reduces productivity. Like adults, today’s kids are getting constant interruptions, and it’s interfering with their learning.
Many people don’t realize it, but the information that comes into our brains and how we process it impacts the way our brains work, including brain chemistry and brain structure. Some studies indicate that a daily practice of even ten minutes of mindfulness (being present in the moment without judging it) can change the structure of the brain for the better, improving stress levels. Some of the areas impacted are areas that govern self-regulation. It stands to reason that information overload, with our brains being pulled in too many directions, could have the opposite impact. Kids’ brains are still developing, which makes the potential impact of too much information particularly concerning.
What to Do About It
To help reduce the impact of information overload I recommend trying to be present in the moment by doing only one thing at a time, as much as possible. This means setting aside chunks of time to do email, respond to texts, etc. Let go of the idea that jumping between tasks so that you can handle everything as soon as it comes up makes you more effective.
Take mini-mindfulness breaks throughout the day. Five minutes would be great, but even 30 seconds helps. I encourage stressed and overwhelmed teenagers and adults in my practice to program their phones with reminders to take mindfulness breaks several times throughout the day. This practice has proven tremendously beneficial for some of them.
Longer information breaks can also be good for your brain and your mental health. There are several ways to test the idea for yourself:
• Try turning off the television and Internet and putting your phones away for an evening and do something together as a family.
• If you go on vacation, try to find other people to cover your work duties and truly disconnect.
• Have your kids stop using their phones after a certain hour. If you can take the phone out of their rooms for the night, even better. Texts and emails coming in can interfere with the quality of their sleep. So can light, so sleep with the television off.
It’s important for parents to manage their information consumption as well. This models good habits for children and improves the quality of the time spent with the kids. Based on the research that we make poorer decisions when our brains are overloaded, reducing information overload will also reduce the likelihood of making parenting decisions you will later regret.
Ehrin Weiss, Ph.D., is a Houston-based psychologist in private practice. She is an expert in clinical psychology with a focus on children and families. Dr. Weiss has a distinct passion for helping people develop skills that last a lifetime. She is currently accepting new clients. Contact her to see how she can help.