How to avoid information overload in an accelerated world

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Between the federal election, the UFC championship, "American Idol", the royal wedding and Osama bin Laden's death, there's a good chance even the most die-hard media addicts felt like they had overdosed on screen time this week.

You may have even started forgetting basic things like where you put your keys, whether you picked up the dry cleaning, and in some extreme cases (OK, in my case), your own postal code.

These are all symptoms of information overload, a phenomenon of the digital age that technology analyst Mark Evans knows all too well.

"Every once in a while I can't think anymore," he says. "My brain is too saturated with ideas and information and it's in those situations I have to force myself to walk away just to hit the reset button."

Evans, like most urban professionals, spends most of his workday in front of a screen, and occasionally most of his after-workdays, too. And though he wouldn't have it any other way, he cautions people to be aware of the amount of time they spend consuming data if it's preventing them from finding healthy balance in their lives.

"Often our best ideas come when we're not digitally engaged. It's when you're going for a walk or at the gym or having dinner with friends and some great idea will pop into your head. When we're online we're not really thinking, we're just kind of soaking it in," he says.

Evans' claims are backed up by a spate of current research that has been measuring the effects of media consumption on children and adults. Because technology that gives us 24/7 access to information is relatively new, scientists can't yet draw any definitive conclusions. However, certain troubling patterns have already presented themselves amongst excessive technophiles.

"The results are pretty clear for both adults and kids. The more technology you use, regardless of how much junk food you eat, regardless of how much exercise you get, you are going to have more problems across the board," says Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, and author of several books on the technology generation.

Some of the symptoms he found were an increase in depressive and narcissistic traits among young adults who spent too much time using social media, signs of compulsive behaviour in teens who over-text and, more alarmingly, an overall harmful effect on young children.

"We were surprised to find that little teeny kids, four to eight years old, showed that the more media they used they were on all dimensions psychologically less healthy."

But you don't have to padlock your laptop just yet. Rosen says the problem isn't necessarily how much information we consume; rather, it's the type of information we consume that affects our well-being.

"The implication to me is that it's not an issue of the massive consumption of media, it's an issue of the choices kids make and how we raise our kids to choose proper media and also to balance themselves with the proper extra activities," he says.

Rosen also cautions parents against extreme measures like getting rid of technology or restricting TV and computer, as there are simply too many other avenues for children to access media. Instead, he believes an open line of communication is key.

"Practice good parenting, which means you talk to your kids, which means you discuss limits and boundaries about their use of technology and you negotiate with them about those uses and you set up contingencies for them to earn the right to use it," he says.

As for adults who find themselves approaching media burnout, the same methodology applies. Anyone who's ever tried a diet and exercise regime knows that the first push is the hardest, but with a bit of discipline and consistency, new healthy habits can take root.

Try to streamline your tech routine to include only the most relevant information. Unless you're preparing a report on the subject, you don't need to look at 20 different versions of the same story. (In fact, one informative Yahoo! article should suffice.)

Also try to view social media as a reward rather than a necessity. It will help cut down on hours of unproductive time and prevent time spent on Facebook or Twitter from becoming stressful.

Finally, Evans wants to remind you that the more you do away from the keyboard, the more you'll get out of your technology usage.

"If you've got hobbies or interests such as cooking or music or family, it's important to be disciplined enough to allocate time to pursue those things because they're healthy and they make you a better, more well-rounded person."

(Photo credit: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)