Ancient brains in a high-tech world - the impact of information overload.

11/19/18 3:02 PM

There is a tsunami of information about the impact of technology on Generation Z (the iGen), now labelled 'neo-digital natives' and primarily using video to communicate.

Humans have always lived in a complex world, but the Information Age has taken distraction to a whole new level. Smartphones are ubiquitous, leading many of us to 'media multitask' by using multiple devices at the same time. 

'The Distracted Mind' is worth a read, as it examines the way our brains have evolved and the consequences of high-tech lifestyles. It explains why our brains aren't built for multitasking, and suggests better ways to live in a high-tech world WITHOUT giving up our modern technology.


Human ability to create high-level goals is what sets us apart from other species, but our cognitive control is really quite limited. The collision between our goals and our limited cognitive abilities leads to 'interference', and with that, diminished performance. 

Our sensitivity to interference (our 'distracted mind') is a vulnerability of our brain and makes the delights of a smartphone irresistible. Society also expects us to be immediately responsive, liking or commenting on social media platforms or responding quickly to messages. 


"We have come to believe that the human brain is a master navigator of the river of information that rages steadily all around us. And yet we often feel challenged when trying to fulfil even fairly simple goals. This is the result of interference - both distractions from irrelevant information and interruptions by our attempts to simultaneously pursue multiple goals."

Goal interference is when we set out to achieve something, but get sidetracked along the way. This interference can be generated both internally (thoughts, mind wandering, multitasking), and externally (distractions, interruptions, multitasking). 

The magnitude of this impact is even greater in children.

"So many technological innovations have enhanced our lives in countless ways, but they also threaten to overwhelm our brain's goal-directed functioning with interference. This interference has a detrimental impact on our cognition and behaviour in daily activities. It impacts every level of our thinking, from our perceptions, decision making, communication, emotional regulation, and our memories."

Our brains are limited in their ability to pay attention. We don't really multitask but rather switch rapidly between tasks. Distractions and interruptions (interference) collide with our goal-setting abilities as we decide that we “must” check in on social media immediately there's an alert. 

For students in a digital learning environment, cognitive control abilities can be constantly challenged - particularly with personal mobile devices. 

But wait, there's hope! 

The authors don't suggest that we give up our devices, but they do suggest that we use them in a more balanced way. We can diminish the negative impact of interference by changing our brains, and by changing our behaviour. Strategies include:

  • Improve our metacognition by increasing understanding of the cost of multitasking
  • Limit accessibility to new information fields
  • Decrease boredom when focusing on a single goal by making engagement more fun
  • Reduce anxiety that prompts a switch to something new (prevent that FOMO)



This is the rationale behind the Partner School Program that Family Zone Education Solutions offers:

  • Schools have visibility of online behaviour and and improve student engagement, while monitoring for at-risk indicators. Schools can be assured that students comply with school internet use policies in school time. 
  • Teachers have control in the classroom, with the ability to 'focus' the class on one tab or website (closing all other tabs and distractions down). Teachers can lead real-time digital citizenship conversations.
  • Parents have visibility of online behaviour and can set routines around appropriate internet use, including for study or sleep time. 

 For more information on how Family Zone can reduce digital distraction (interference), contact us today. 



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