Do you remember the anti-drug campaign created by Partnership for a Drug-Free America in the 80’s? This iconic campaign featured a spokesperson cracking an egg over a sizzling skillet saying, “This is your brain on drugs.” Regardless of how effective the campaign was in slowing the progression of illicit drug use, it left a clear visual impact. With the intrusion of digital technology into nearly every aspect of our daily lives, maybe we need a similar PSA. Maybe, we could change this slogan to “This is your brain on information.”
Digital overload. Cleary, many aspects of digital technologies have made our lives easier and more enjoyable. Apps and web platforms connect us, get us to our next destination, remind us to exercise more and drink water. We have entered an era where information is available for our consumption 24-hours a day. However, we are showing signs that too much may not be a good thing as rates of stress and reports of feeling overwhelmed rise.
A recent German study investigated the impact of digital technology, such as email and social media, on stress levels (Reinecke ‘16). In this group of 18 to 85-year-old adults, increasing amounts of digital communication were associated with increased levels of stress. The human brain was not designed for an unlimited stream of input. This study also found that multitasking was related to increased stress. Other studies have supported this finding. A 2015 study of college students found that concurrent digital multitasking negatively impacted academic retention in the classroom.
The impact of too much digital information can impact us in a variety of ways. Difficulties processing and organizing information and difficulty keeping track of information can lead to feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Studies have shown that these factors can impact work effectiveness, increase work hours, decrease off-work hours and negatively affect personal relationships. In organizations, information overload can lead to decreased work quality, decreased moral and work-related stress.
Several theories have suggested why we might struggle with the amount of information we receive. Some theories suggest that as humans, we are limited in the amount of information we are able to receive and process. Other theories highlight that the rate at which information is received can overwhelm our capacity to manage the information. Regardless of the hiccups our brains encounter when going into information overload, learning how to protect our vulnerable minds can impact our minds and bodies.
"Regardless of the hiccups our brains encounter when going into information overload, learning how to protect our vulnerable minds can impact our minds and bodies."
Basic interventions can help tame excessive information intrusion. Time management and load management strategies can inform how we can better manage overwhelming amounts of input (Hall and Walton).
Here are a few suggestions:
• Schedule times for online activities and stick to this schedule! For example, schedule time to only check your email account once in the morning, once midday and once late afternoon.
• When you are engaging on a device or platform, limit intrusion from other devices. If you are answering emails on your computer, put your phone in another room so that you aren’t disturbed by texts, calls or notifications. Most of these can wait the 15 to 20 minutes it takes to check and respond to emails.
• Unsubscribe to unnecessary accounts to limit the amount of junk emails that land in your inbox. Make a plan to regularly unsubscribe to unwanted emails.
• Unplug. Create tech free zones and tech free times at home. This sets a great example for our kids, many of whom who keep their devices with them everywhere they go.
• If possible, strategize with your supervisors or colleagues towards more efficient digital workflow solutions to minimize digital intrusions at work.
• Build in quiet time. Scheduling 15 to 30 minutes of quiet into the day gives your brain time to process information and to generate new and novel thoughts and ideas.
• Make sure to keep up those online activities that you enjoy. Go for a walk outside or spend time with family or friends.
In many ways, advances in technology make our lives better. However, the potential negative impact can out balance many of the benefits technology promises. Gaining awareness of the role that technology plays in our lives helps us become proactive in managing how it effects our daily lives.
Reinecke R, Aufenanger S, Beutel M, Dreier M, Quiring O, Stark B, Wölfling K, Müller K: Digital Stress over the Life Span: The Effects of Communication Load and Internet Multitasking on Perceived Stress and Psychological Health Impairments in a German Probability Sample. Media Psychology. 2016
Hall A, Walton G. Information overload within the healthcare system: a literature review. Health Information and Libraries Journal. 2004;21(102-108)