Digital Natives and Information Overload

Digital natives and information overload is an increasing problem both in the workplace, and in life in general. Those that learn to deal with it effectively have a major advantage in the next few years.

Information Overload is when you are trying to deal with more information than you are able to process to make sensible decisions. The result is either that you either delay making decisions, or that you make the wrong decisions.

It is now commonplace to be getting too many e-mails, reports and incoming messages to deal with them effectively.

The Information Overload Age

The first recorded use of the phrase “information overload” was used by the futurologist Alvin Toffler in 1970, when he predicted that the rapidly increasing amounts of information being produced would eventually cause people problems.

Although people talk about “living in the information age,” written information has been used for thousands of years. The invention of the Printing Press a few hundred years ago made it possible to distribute written information to large amounts of people. However, it is only with the advent of modern computers that the ability to create, duplicate and access vast amounts of information has created Information Overload amongst the general population.

The root of the problem is that, although computer processing and memory is increasing all the time, the humans that must use the information are not getting any faster. Effectively, the human mind acts as a bottleneck in the process.

Not “Sensory Overload”

Information Overload needs to be differentiated from “Sensory Overload.” This is when your mind is bombarded with images, sounds and sensations that overload the brain.

The brain can actually handle tens of millions of signals from our senses every second. Think of the number of light sensors within the eye, and equate this to the resolution of a digital camera (and the corresponding file size of the photos it produces). Then include the thousands of touch-sensitive areas of the body, and the range of our hearing. But we can still deal with all of this, because the brain has had tens of millions of years of evolution to deal with this.

Digital Natives versus Digital Immigrants 

What should we call these “new” students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen, or Digital Natives. Much of the world’s Millennials and Generation Z members are digital natives. Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet. So what does that make the rest of us? Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, called Digital Immigrants, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age) and struggle to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.

Older - Digital Immigrants Younger - Digital Natives
Prefer to talk on phone or in person Prefer to connect via text, chat, Facebook, games, etc.
Text sparingly Text more than call: 47% of teens can text with eyes closed
Prefer synchronistic communication Prefer a-synchronistic (sequential) communication
Accustomed to and like manuals with clear steps Cannot relate to manuals - They figure it out intuitively
Assume they will work their way up the ladder in the workplace, in a linear fashion, in one career. Try many careers, want balance among family, friends, activities, work. Prefer flexible hours, opportunity to make up work remotely, i.e., from a café on a weekend.
Hang out in person, clubs, dinners, etc. Hang out online in chats, social networking sites and games
Value ‘proper’ English Use texting and instant message shorthand: cu tomorrow; luv ya, ru going to the game?
Tell friends about a trip on the phone, or with an in-person slideshow Tell friends about a trip by posting an album online
Use the Internet to gather information Use the web to socialize, play, watch videos, shows, etc.
Think young people waste their lives online Many aspects of life are happening only online
Think of the Internet as not “real life” Internet is as real, and often more pleasurable, than offline life
One task or pleasure at a time Several tasks or recreation activities at a time: Watch television, text, study.
Safety concerns: Physical kidnapping, assault, robbery Safety concerns: Sexting, inappropriate pictures online, cyber stalking, identity theft, privacy invasions (hijacking of email accounts, social networking sites)

Digital Natives Complexities, Differences, Problems

  • Some digital natives spend too much time in front of the screen, up to 20 hours a day. Spending countless hours a day, every day, on the Internet or online gaming can interfere with young people’s emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual development.
  • Unlike older generations, the younger generations often socialize, hang out, and communicate online rather than in person. They usually text rather than talk on the phone, and often prefer to hang out on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace rather than in the local bar, on the street or at the town square.
  • Unlike older generations, young people are highly capable of effective multitasking, which appears to the older generation as lack of attention and lack of focus.
  • Around the world there are alarming reports of Internet Addiction. For example, in Korea there have been 10 cardiopulmonary-related deaths in Internet cafés. China reports 13% of its population is Internet-addicted. The U.S. and the west often show similar stats, with 9% of U.S. Internet users hiding their non-essential Internet use.
  • While the older generations may primarily use the Internet to gather important information and follow up on important news, younger generations use the Internet for communication, fun and gaming, to find out about each other, information-gathering, view videos, listen to music, blog, chat, share links, read news, shop, and “surf.”
  • The older/parent generation, being digital immigrants, view all these online activities and multitasking as a waste of time and lack of focus. They do not understand the value of online social networking, the learning that takes place in online games, the capacity of young people to multitask, and the enormous fun, pleasure and sense of community that young people derive from these activities.