It’s just too much

Information overload is a growing problem, and you can see it right here in Halifax

Imagine standing in the cereal aisle of your local grocery store. The shelving stretches, four or five tiers high, half the depth of the store. It’s hard to take it all in. The choices seem endless. There are the healthy options, the sugar-drenched offerings. And everything in between. At some point, overwhelmed, you just grab the darned Shreddies. It’s all just too much.

For many of us, life feels a lot like that grocery store aisle. We’re bombarded with content, information, and the decisions they demand of us. 

Social media feeds offer up unending entertainment, opinion, distraction. SEO Tribunal, a company that assesses search engine optimization, reports that every minute, people do more than 3.8 million Google search queries. PC Magazine writes that in that same single minute people send more than 18-million texts and 188 million emails.

Who can keep up?

The better question is, what does it do to us to try? 

When I think about all the email there is to check and respond to, all the links I should read to prepare for too many meetings, all the research and scrolling that’s necessary before you make the simplest online purchase, or choose which cell or internet company to use, all the scam-artist robo-calls and emails I have to assess (did I order something on Amazon?) to assure myself that yes, it’s another attempt to defraud me, all the great watching I could be streaming… you get the picture.

I can feel my blood pressure rising at the tsunami of information, and all that it requires of me to process. And the slight feeling of panic knowing I can never really process it in a meaningful way. It splinters my attention and makes me feel distracted and unable to focus. My friends say the same thing, and talk about being forgetful or fatigued. My kids feel it too. I once came home to find my then-12-year-old daughter crying because she couldn’t stop watching the messages in her group chat, in case the others said something she should know about. She was overwhelmed and couldn’t escape. 

It’s cognitive assault, like the unending blast of a fire hose. A 2009 American research project called “How Much Information,” essentially a census of the world’s information flow, pegged the amount of data an individual consumes each day at 34 gigabytes, the equivalent of a fifth of a notebook computer’s hard drive, or about 100,000 words. That was a 350-per-cent increase over 1980. Even before AI and machine learning it was continuing to grow by six per cent a year.

Mostly we hardly notice it. The information comes in the form of video, radio, phone calls, books, social media, images. We talk on the phone while we scroll our Twitter feed and think nothing of it. But it creates a demand on our brains like never before. Imagine agrarian life 200 years ago. You saw the same few people, repeated the same actions every day… milk the cow, scythe the wheat, prepare meals, care for children. It might have been boring but it was cognitively undemanding. 

Today we constantly encounter new information. And folks, our brains may be plastic but they aren’t built for this bombardment of “inputs” or data. 

Jean Twenge, a psychology researcher at San Diego State University, has studied the effect in young people. She’s found that high users of social media and screen time (about seven hours a day, which is not unusual) have less curiosity, less self-control, and less emotional stability. They’re also twice as likely to have a diagnosis of anxiety or depression.

I still clearly remember the first time I had an anxiety attack. The pounding heart, dizzyness, difficulty breathing, and terrible sense of dread. At the time, in the early 1980s, I’d never heard of anxiety and neither had my family or friends. Partly because people didn’t talk about mental health much then. And partly because in some important ways life wasn’t as triggering. 

These days, I’m a professor at the University of King’s College, and everyone on campus knows about anxiety and a remarkable number of my students suffer from it. In one term, fully a third of the class. And it’s not just King’s.

Some of my students and I worked with the Investigative Journalism Bureau and the Toronto Star to detail the surging mental health crisis in young people. We found that nearly 30 per cent of post-secondary students in Canada and the U.S. said their failing mental health has caused them to consider self-harm and suicide. Many talked about being overwhelmed and isolated.

Olympians Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka know all about it. The American gymnast and Japanese tennis star have each backed away from high-stakes competitions, referencing their mental health and the expectations that are too much, and amplified in online buzz. 

The first pandemic lockdown gave many people a brief respite, an opportunity to re-evaluate where we set the volume control on the firehose of information. There’s an entire literature on managing email stress, taking technology breaks, and reducing stress. We know that exercise and being in nature are proven antidotes to a noisy world of information. Lots of people swear by meditation or mindfulness.

When I was an anxious teenager, my mom would say to just get out for a walk and take note of the real world around me. It’s even better advice today. And leave the phone at home. 

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