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Are we on the verge of digital overload?

5:45 PM, Nov 4, 2010   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA - Digital devices have connected us and made the world smaller. Technology has helped make us more efficient and productive. But is it taking a toll on our lives?

If you are addicted to your electronic gadgets, unable to disconnect, unable to focus, constantly juggling a steady stream of e-mails, status updates, text messages, and tweets - you could be feeling the effects of "digital overload."

The Effect

Some experts say technology - in the form of digital gadgets and computers- is affecting how we process information, how we think and behave. 

Sometimes, people are able to quickly filter through the "noise" and extract the information they need. They take the multi-tasking in stride. But, Dr. Peter Yellowlees warns said contrary to popular belief, our brains are not wired for all this technology. 

"As humans, we are trained cognitively to be essentially serial 'uni-taskers' rather than to be 'multi-taskers.' People use this term multi-tasking very inaccurately," said Yellowlees. "What we're good at is focusing on something for short periods of time and keeping in one area and then moving to another area and then focusing on that area. We're not good at trying to focus on two areas at once."

Sometimes, the excessive use of technology takes its toll. Experts say it distracts us, making us more impatient, forgetful, and anxious. 

"It can make us feel distinctly out of control. That, of course, could lead us to feel anxiety," said Yellowlees.

Some people become addicted.

"People literally do get hooked on the technology. They somehow feel like they've got to check it every hour, every two hours or they've got to check it when they are on holiday. It can be genuinely hard to turn off and to do other things,"  Yellowlees said.

"It's overwhelming at times. Probably 7:30 a.m. until 10 at night, I'm checking some kind of device every 15 to 20 minutes," said Lesley Miller of 3Fold Communications.

"You're multi-tasking so much, you can almost never make progress on a particular project. It definitely has been a problem for me," said Miller.

Miller enlisted in the New York Times Unplugged Challenge and turned off her cell phone for three days. 

"It was definitely a challenge," she said. "I went through a wide range of emotions about it over three days."

Miller blogged about the experience on camera and the New York Times picked it up. Miller said in some ways, being disconnected from her cell phone was liberating. But some simple things became a challenge, whether it was not being able to make a simple call if she got lost or just checking in with her husband.

"For those of us who have had cell phones since high school or college, we almost don't know how to get by without it," said Miller.

How to tackle tech addiction

If you are looking to avoid digital overload or brain fatigue, scientists suggest giving you brain some downtime. Turn off digital devices. Or check your e-mail less often. Try to use that time to engage in conversation with someone face-to-face. Go for a walk, get outside, take a lap around the block. 

Miller set boundaries for herself. She doesn't tweet after 8 p.m. She tries not to use Twitter or Facebook on weekends.

Filter failure?

An instructional design coordinator at Folsom Lake College doesn't buy into the idea of too much information and too many digital devices. Zac Dowell helps faculty and staff use technology and media in their classes. He does research and development on mobile learning.

"I think students are good at multi-tasking.What I think students are really good at, having grown up in this environment, is switching attention," said Dowell.

He said what some might consider to be digital overload may be more of a matter of "filter failure."

"People who didn't grow up in an always 'on' socially networked environment tend to see a list of 900 e-mails and think they have to devote 100 percent to each one," said Dowell. "People who grew up with devices and these types of technologies are able to look at one thing and move onto the next thing, and, as a result, don't feel overwhelmed."

Dowell suggested, "Instead of being concerned about information overload, we need to focus on tools or skills to sort that constant stream of data that is coming at us."

The bottom line: "Technology is like everything else. We need to use it in a reasonable way and in moderation," said Yellowlees.

by Suzanne Phan,

Twitter: @suzannephan
Facebook: @SuzannePhanNews10





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