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Are Your Children Overloaded with Information?

Children these days are drowning in a sea of media-supplied information.

The Internet, and all of the new computer and communication technology that has sprung from it, have been a boon to the information age, making information available at children’s fingertips instantaneously. The sheer volume of information now accessible online is staggering; there are around 50 billion pages on the Web. Information continues to become more available to children in less time; from web sites to email to RSS feeds to tweets to text messages, children have input at an unprecedented rate and volume. This information age is the crazy new world in which your children are being raised and it will likely be a determining factor in how their brains and minds develop.

For all its benefits, a real danger for children is that they will feel like they are drowning in this torrent of information. Neuroscientists call this notion “cognitive overload” and it occurs when the inflow of information hinders rather than helps the ability to process that information and think clearly.

Now let me digress briefly and make an important distinction: information is not thinking. Thinking involves what children’s brains do with the information: perceive, remember, organize, synthesize, reason, create, problem solve, and make decisions. Raising children who will thrive in the digital world is all about teaching them how and wiring their brains to think, not just access information.

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This overflow of information affects children in several ways. First, in today’s world of technology, information is coming at them from many directions, for example, television, computer, texts, hyperlinks, and on-screen ads. Children are enveloped in an environment of constant information and distraction. As a result, they have neither the time nor the attention to process most of the information and use it in productive ways, for instance, to learn a subject in school or explore a topic of personal interest in greater depth.

Second, with children’s minds being flooded with information, their primary motivation is not to think about that information, but rather to move the information through their minds as quickly as possible to make room for the next wave of information. Children can use one of two strategies when their “inbox” starts to overflow.

They can ignore the information completely, which means not retaining any of it, for example, delete emails before reading them or skip a chapter in a reading assignment in school. The downside here is that some of the information may be important, for example, necessary to pass a test in school.

Or children process it quickly through their minds just to get it out and clear their minds for new information flowing in. The problem here is that the “output,” for example, a paper based on a topic learned in class, will be of poor quality because the information wasn’t adequately thought through.

At the heart of the problem with information overload is that such large and never-ending quantities of input interferes with children’s ability to engage in what I call “interput,” which involves all of the processes that go into thinking between input to output. With so much information coming in and the need to get information out, interput suffers; there is neither the time nor the energy to adequately process all of the information that children receive these days.

Information is only a tool; it’s value lies in how we use it. The Internet has placed a universe of information at your children’s disposal; what a wonderful opportunity that is. What makes children successful in this wired world is not the availability of information, but how they use it, in other words, their interput.

Only through interput does information become meaningful to children and only then can it morph from simple data into knowledge, insight, expertise, and wisdom. That only comes when children have the time for interput; stopping in the middle of this flood of information to think about, wrestle with, challenge, and build on the information that arrives at their technological doorstep.

For children, information without interput has serious consequences. It means, as the writer Nicholas Carr so aptly puts it, being a jet skier rather than a scuba diver, skimming at high speed over the surface of information rather than going deep. The absence of interput prevents children from taking ownership of the information—making it theirs—and not only incorporating it into their information “hard drive,” but also integrating it into their knowledge “library.” It also keeps them from transforming the input from cold and lifeless data into a power plant of insight, creativity, and innovation. It ultimately prevents your children from putting the information into conscious, meaningful, and beneficial action.

Reducing Information Overload in Your Children

So how can you help your children swim against the tide of information overload and find the time for interput and quality output? The answer to this question is really quite simple, but nonetheless far from easy in this world of 24/7 connectivity. You have to be the “spigot” that controls the flow and type of information your children get.

The first thing to do is to engage your children in a conversation about information. You may be surprised to learn that your children are acutely aware that the current rate of information that is flooding into their brains is overwhelming and stressing them out. They just don’t know how to deal with it. That’s where you come in. Work with your children to find ways in which you can help them to reduce their input to a manageable level without, of course, causing them to miss out on important information, whether academic, social, or simply of personal interest to them.

Ask yourself and your children what purpose all of this input serves them and whether the typical information they receive each day really brings value to their life. Admittedly, you might have to do some negotiating with your children when disagreements arise about what is and isn’t important. For example, you may not see eye to eye on the value of Facebook updates. You will have to come to consensus about what information is important and what is not.

Then, work with your children to set reasonable limits on the inflow of information that will relieve their stress, enable them to engage in interput, and allow them to do better in school and other important activities. Hopefully, this exercise will put your children’s flow of information into perspective and show you and them that much of that input is simply distracting clutter that actually detracts from the quality of their lives.

With your children’s input load reduced and your and their new understanding of the importance of interput, they now have created a space in their lives in which they can absorb the information that is most beneficial to them and have the time to engage in the thing that’s so important to raising children in this wired world, namely, thinking. The result for your children? Fewer feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed, more time to devote to important things, more thinking, and better output in their personal, family, social, and school lives.

This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Children for a Media-fueled World.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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