Why ‘Data Smog’ May Be Making You Depressed

Information overload leads to stress, especially when much of that information is useless

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We  live in the Information Age. But I’ve never heard — nor would any sane person suggest — that we live in the Useful Information Age. The modern downpour of data is largely worthless distraction, and the sheer amount is drowning us. Of all of the ways in which the contemporary environment is mismatched with our genes and harms our emotional health, I believe the revolution in information delivery is the one most responsible for epidemic depression. Research so far is sparse but indicative: a 2005 Swedish study, for example, found associations between heavy communications technology use and “prolonged stress,” sleep disturbances and depressive symptoms in young adults.

This torrent — and its psychological toll — might have some redeeming value if it proved useful to us. Clearly, some small percentage is useful, but the vast majority is not. Before the Internet, data had to undergo a Darwinian selection process before it reached the masses. Paper, ink and distribution cost money and time. That usually meant someone exerted quality control to ensure that whatever was communicated was worth buying. With distribution and consumption now virtually free, that constraint is gone. Francis Heylighen, a cyberneticist at the Free University of Brussels, wrote that the resulting explosion of “irrelevant, unclear, and simply erroneous data fragments” might best be termed “data smog.”

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When the amount of low-quality information coming at people exceeds certain real but difficult-to-quantify limits, they suffer. They are likely to ignore or forget information they need and to be less in control of their lives as a result. Neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg’s excellent 2008 book, The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory, cites research showing that “there is a fixed capacity for human beings to receive information, and that this limit lies at around seven items,” a number routinely exceeded in the modern workplace, leading to forgetfulness, distractability and disorganization. In the long term, bad-information overload increases stress, with many negative consequences for physical and emotional health.

If the information we get is usually so valueless, why are we almost universally compelled to seek it? Psychologist B.F. Skinner’s experiments revealed that when animals get the reinforcement of a food pellet in response to pressing a bar, a variable schedule — in which the pellet comes after a varying number of presses — is the most powerful. That’s how slot machines pay off, and humans will work relentlessly to get money from them. The web and email hand out rewards just this way. You get a useful video or important news from a friend, just often enough and variably enough, to compulsively seek more.

In my latest book I discuss my own struggle with depression, and some of the therapies I found essential to recover from it. Perhaps most valuable were my firm resolve and resolute actions to limit my exposure to data smog, including:

  • Deleting, without remorse, all games from my computer and mobile devices.
  • Refusing to aimlessly surf the web. I always have a specific object in mind, and resolve to seek only that.
  • Handling e-mail almost exclusively on my desktop computer, almost never on my cell phone or notepad.  When I leave my office for the day, usually in the afternoon, I leave the computer and e-mail behind until morning.

I am much happier for having made these changes, which have freed me to pursue more restorative activities, especially spending time in natural settings. My mind is clearer, my attention span longer and my real (as opposed to virtual) friendships closer.

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There is no “right” set of rules for rising above data smog, but it is absolutely vital for your emotional well-being to find one that works for you and stick to it. Don’t be afraid to leave the digital world behind, even for extended periods. Trust me — it will be there when you return, and each separation will leave you better prepared to use it wisely.