The Other TMI: Is Media Overload Real?

Concerns about “information overload” have been around since before the printing press. The worry has been that too much information could overwhelm our human sense of understanding, and yet people have so far adapted to each new wave of information technology. We got used to books, phonographs, phones, television, and the web. Now we have access to more information on demand than ever before through phones, TV, and the ever-expanding Internet, all competing for our attention. How does using this technology affect our bodies and minds? How can we adapt gracefully as media proliferation accelerates?

Physically, all this screen time has had some pretty poor health effects. Most of our media consumption is done over long periods of sitting, which causes a drop in the activity of the enzyme lipoprotein lipase that breaks down fat in the blood. This and the displacement of physical activity add up to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Sedentary lifestyles have also been shown to impair glucose metabolism, increasing risk for type 2 diabetes.

Mentally, our brains are changing with the times for better and worse. Real-time media like video and TV have been shown to increase visual intelligence, but cause a decline in print literacy. Children especially are missing out on the imaginative, reflective activity of reading, and some say, losing the ability to respond critically and get deeper meaning from the media they consume.

Author Nicholas Carr wonders if all this media multi-tasking sacrifices our “capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection.” Beyond being scatter-brained, some research suggests that social media expands our web of connections but makes them shallower, causing an “epidemic of loneliness.”

How can we adapt to this growing network of available information without becoming the shallow, lonely desk jockeys of our nightmares? In his recent TED Talk, “Information is Food,” technologist JP Rangaswami makes a compelling case that overload, like overeating, is within our control. “Information, if viewed from the point of view of food, is never a production issue… It’s a consumption issue, and we have to start thinking about how we create diets [and] exercise.”

In short, media overload is as real as overeating. It doesn’t just happen to you. Keeping control could mean making your own media pyramid, doing a media fast, or just making sure that you use a variety of tools to find and sort information. And of course, you could go dance, paint, meditate, make out, garden, cook, or otherwise take a break to be timelessly human.

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Image: tedeytan