I was recently described, to my face, as a “modern digital junkie.”
This diagnosis was given to me, half in jest, by Dr. Dimitrios Tsivrikos, consumer psychologist at University College London, when I described my symptoms to him. After spending my workday tapping, swiping and emailing, I come home and — despite my exhaustion and twitching eyes — I want to consume more online. But I’m not even absorbing the articles, tweets and posts that I peruse. I’m just skipping from page to page, jumping from link to link.
There’s another word for my problem. It’s infomania, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information, typically via mobile phone or computer.” And I’m far from alone.
Kelsey Lakowske, a listener in California, emailed me in desperation. “I want to read all these articles about everything from the latest scientifically engineered sugar substitute to an in-depth analysis of Donald Trump's hair,” she said. “It's like a different flavor of FOMO.… It's fear of missing out, but missing out on content — and on knowledge. With limited time and mental resources, there's no way to get through it all.”
Tsivrikos told me he sees this issue most frequently in city folks like us, who think that stuffing their brains will make them better educated, more informed and more connected. But we can’t possibly absorb or retain all the digital media we try to consume. Not only is this undertaking futile, it’s stressing us out. Our gadgets’ ability to keep us “in the know” has changed social expectations — and is exceeding our brains' processing power. We say that we’re “maxxed out” or we “don’t have the bandwidth,” jargon that reflects this sense of inadequacy. It’s time for us to make working within our brains' capacities, rather than the Internet’s, socially acceptable.
Psychologists have done studies on the negative effects of multitasking and decision fatigue, but the long-term consequences of this kind of information overload is unknown. In a survey done a few months ago by the digital mapping and analytics company Esri UK, 61% of respondents called “the need to read and keep track of information from too many sources” a serious concern in their daily lives and 45% said that “the stress of data overload has affected either their sleep or relationships with family or colleagues.” Fully a third of respondents reported that they had difficulty absorbing the content from all the emails, social media posts, news and documents they encountered.
We already know that we read differently and retain less when getting information online. And there’s been lots of research about how digital media are changing our attention spans. But human-computer interaction researchers are just beginning to study why a full day of digital tasks and interruptions makes us crave even more digital tasks and interruptions. Why would we spend hours at work on a computer, then go home and mindlessly tap away on Facebook or Pinterest?
For one thing, when we’re tired, we fall prey to this tendency more easily. Professor Gloria Mark at UC Irvine’s Department of Informatics recently completed study that suggests that the less sleep we get, the shorter our attention span is on any computer screen the next day — and the more likely we are to gravitate toward social media. “If you're really tired,” she said, “you're not really mentally prepared to do heavy-duty work. You tend to do lightweight activities like Facebook. It's easy. It doesn't involve a lot of mental effort. And, of course, you have a shorter attention duration, which translates into more switching between different computer screens and different activities because you just don't have the mental resources to be able to focus and concentrate.”
For many of us, this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. We know our attention span is limited, but even if our phone doesn’t buzz with a text, we self-interrupt. We check email one more time. We look at our Twitter or Instagram feed. We don’t resist clicking on that link. It could be funny! Or contain life-changing information! Or at least provide conversation material for that holiday party tonight! We are inadvertently training our minds to seek digital interaction with little deeper intellectual payoff.
I don’t know if there’s a cure for infomania, but I believe we can put our symptoms in check. We need to put a higher value on taking the time to synthesize, interpret and reflect on the information we take in every day. The next step in digital literacy is not just understanding how to find reputable online sources but refining our content consumption according to our personal priorities and values.
Part of the problem is simply sorting through the mountains of information we’re dealing with. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and neuroscience and author of the book "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload," explains the difficulty we have distinguishing and prioritizing among various bits of content on our screens. “During the day, when information comes in, you're not quite sure how important it is or how important it's going to be. You have no system for it… You put it in your brain and you kind of toss it and turn it around ... because it doesn't attach to anything.” He advocates for moments of mindfulness. “Just take a beat, take a breath and pay attention.” If there’s something actually important to you, take a moment to mentally “mark” it.
We also need to ask ourselves: What’s the point of this insatiable hunger for information? When it comes down to it, what do we really want to get out of it? We can set limits by setting personal goals, figuring out what we want to learn or do more of. Maybe you just want to be more up-to-date on the news and current events. Or you want to come up with more original ideas. Perhaps you’ve decided it’s time for you to really master a skill or subject. Maybe you want to put greater emphasis on your personal life and be in better touch with friends and family — or even yourself. Maybe you want to simply be calmer and more relaxed.
The information you consume should reflect this personal choice. Tsivrikos suggests creating goals for going online, writing them down and putting them in the place where you do most of your data consumption. That way, he says, you’ll know what you’re looking for, channel your efforts and be less likely to wander off. Having goals and sticking to them spares our brains the effort of processing unneeded information. It also releases us from the feeling of never being satisfied.
Earlier and earlier, children need to be given this responsibility, taught the value in thinking through goals and understanding the consequences of a life spent skimming. If they don’t choose, our gadgets and the delightful pre-loaded activities on them will decide for them.
Above all, we need to reset our own and society’s expectations. It has to be OK to say, “I didn’t see it/read it/watch it.” Otherwise, you’ll have spent life catching up on Netflix, reading a backlog of top-ten lists, or looking at GIFs from co-workers. If those activities fit in with your goals, go for it. But if they get you no closer to achieving what you really want to achieve tomorrow, next year, or in the next five years, downgrade their relevance in your life.
Manoush Zomorodi is host and managing editor of the "Note to Self" podcast on WNYC.