Information Overload

“I think the reason why print magazines are still very popular is because you kind of have the feeling, okay, this is like one issue and this is what happens this week. And on the internet... there’s no beginning an no end.”

Harvard Student, 18 years old, Born Digital

Born Digital’s chapter on information overload starts with some staggering statistics, “the amount of digital content that was created, stored and replicated last year is hard to fathom. The answer is 1,288 x 1018 bits. That’s 161 billion gigabytes. In lay terms, that’s three million times the information in all books ever written, or twelve stacks of books reaching from the Earth to the Sun, or six tons of books for every person. It would require two billion of the highest capacity iPods to store all that information. Even more impressive than these numbers is the growth rate of information. In 2003, researchers have estimated the world’s information production to be around five billion gigabytes. Current reports predict that there will be 988 billion gigabytes of information in 2010.” Today’s amount of digital content is well into the trillion gigabytes of information.


Today’s children have an abundance of immediate information. How do we teach children to differentiate fact from fiction in an online environment where everything is so fluid? The quick answer is that we ignore certain information and limit the number of websites we visit. Because of this the “80/20 rule” comes into effect. This rule would state that roughly only 20 percent of certain websites will receive 80 percent of all Web traffic.

Along with ignoring and filtering out certain information children use strategies called “chunking “and “twigging” to avoid information overload. This basically entails finding a large chunk of information from various sites and compress the information into something understandable.

Kids as well as adults further narrow their searches by finding websites that meet their personal preference. “Young people chose one website over another based on strong personal preferences such as color, design, sound, and likes or dislikes. In one 1997 study, researchers discovered that fifth-graders basically ignored websites with more than on or two pages of text, focusing instead on sites with pictures and colorful graphics.”

The question many researchers are asking because of these new filtering systems is whether young people will use these new filtering and web-crawlers to surround themselves only with the information they are likely to agree with. Some critics argue that with the way in which the online environment is evolving children may be actually narrowing their experiences instead of expanding them. Because we can pinpoint exact information immediately we lose the serendipity that research and exploration has offered in the past. Regardless of the pros and cons, the fact remains, we all have to develop strategies for dealing with information overload.

Education once again offers the most promise in terms of helping children cope with information overload. Parents and teachers must work together with students to teach them the skills that they will need to manage all this information. The main step is simply teaching our children that there is a problem of information overload. Once they begin to realize the problem it will be easier for them to use “tools, applications, and strategies that can help them avoid overload. And they can learn more ways to cope with overload on their own as they develop their skills in handling and processing information.”