Coping With Digital Overload

Coping With Digital Overload

Is multitasking “dumbing down” the world? Are the new digital media and our desire to be wired 24/7 actually making us less able to process, analyze and remember information? How do we cope with the overload of information without blowing a gasket?

A very interesting Frontline show, “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier” (February 2, 2011;, points out that these stresses are not affecting only the older generation—mine—but even college students who have never been without a computer and are “digital natives.” They claim to be able to surf the net and text messages while sitting in a class and/or talking with friends. But it turns out that we’re all lousy at such multitasking. Most tasks, which are not autonomic, like breathing, are best done one at a time.

Because I was never very good at patting my head and rubbing circles on my stomach, I’m not surprised at this. As a card-carrying member of the Howdy Doody generation brought up on television, I did my homework lying on the floor in front of the set. Even now I watch TV with a book or magazine open. I know I can do a couple of things at once, but I’ve also learned I do them better if I do them separately.

Disturbing Brain Scans

This new show presents some medical research and comprehension/memory test results. Brain scans compared reading a book (activity primarily in the left hemisphere, which processes words and numbers) and conducting a Google search (where both hemispheres are stimulated at the same time since creativity resides on the right). Given that we tap a mere fraction of our brain’s capacities at best, you might think this would be good. But the fact is that we remember far less from the Google search than from the book reading.

It’s true that we’re losing memory. Since writing came along, the memory hasn’t been as important. Poets didn’t have to memorize a thousand verses of Homer to recite once they could read them. I still spout off three full stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” but this feat has never earned me so much as a drink at a bar. Education still depends on some amount of memory—at least to remember where to go to look for the information needed.

Older Catholics will recall memorizing chunks of The Baltimore Catechism, and actually I’m grateful for what I learned. Even if I didn’t understand back then “Why did God make me?” or “What is a sacrament?,” just having those answers available somewhere in my head has given me much food for thought through the years.

The biggest thing multitasking media users complain about is feeling constantly distracted. “Honestly, I can’t sit still for two hours straight and focus on anything,” one student complains in the Frontline show. As a result, academic test scores are going down across the board. And I, personally, don’t want to settle for a doctor who got only 75 percent in anatomy class.

My Modest Prescription

The demands of the digital media are not going away; neither is the need to do more with less. Some ideas may sound old-fashioned, but here goes:

  1. Turn off some media and incoming messages.
  2. Practice focusing. As with any other discipline, we get better at this the more we do it.
  3. Realize we can’t do everything—at least, not simultaneously. Maybe we just have to say no to certain demands.
  4. Set priorities. Among these could be getting with friends (in person, and not on Facebook), communing with nature and experiencing silence.

Now the trick is to practice what I preach!

Featured illustration:  jscreationzs


About the Author

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of "St. Anthony Messenger" magazine. A graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism, she is a former president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and former vice president of the International Catholic Union of the Press.
  • Catholic @BarbaraKB

    Well said, Barbara. You tackle both sides of this issue and I appreciate the perspective that no matter how we multi-task, we lose a level of human connection.

    BTW, one day, you will recite your memorized Longfellow stanzas for me, and then we will share a pint together.


    -Barbara Baker

  • Sally Oberski

    Barbara, enjoyed reading your blog. I watched the Digital Nation on Frontline online and honestly felt myself being pulled toward checking Facebook while I was watching it. My Tweetdeck was on and each tweet was popping up so I closed it down and really focused on just watching Frontline. As a communications director I am constantly multitasking at work and I really believe it is having an effect on my memory. Your blog is a great reminder to slow down and focus-thank you!

    • Bjbeckwith

      Dear Sally,
      Thank you for your comments. I wrote this as much for me to learn to cope better as to give advice on how to do it to others. I was focused on how much less is remembered with the overload. But did you see this week’s Newsweek where another new study shows that having more information is yielding poorer decisions? That’s even worse. You can’t win for losing.