How Kids are Immune to Information Overload

Youth growing up in America today live in a digital playground where a nearly unlimited amount of information and media can be accessed with a quick click, type or swipe on a variety of gadgets. But with all the Facebook-liking, text messaging and video gaming, one might assume this demographic would be suffering from severe digital fatigue.

But often it's the adults who complain their lives are inundated by information and the web, claiming the more they do, the less they get done. Younger people just don’t feel as weighed down by their digital-centric lifestyles, studies show.

"The anywhere, anytime nature of our information society comes more naturally for younger demographics than adults,” Scott Campbell, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, told TechNewsDaily.

"Since adults didn't grow up in a digital environment, they have had to adjust — whereas, kids have never known anything else."

For those who have grown up with the Internet, going back and forth between various browser windows and platforms, and then pausing to respond to a text, seems like second nature. But just because the resources are all there, kids don’t feel like they have to be wired in to everything.

"Younger people are more plugged in than adults, but they don’t feel any obligation to be," Campbell said. "Some people will always like their information fed to them through a newspaper and others will want to select the news they want to read online. It's a generational thing. Older demographics tend to be more focused on one thing, whereas kids prefer to just pick and choose what they want."

So what can adults learn about navigating this brave, new digital world by watching kids?

The filtering method

John Barrett, the director of research for market research firm Parks Associated, which specializes in consumer technology trends, believes young consumers approach these platforms differently than adults by focusing on what they care about.

"Some kids receive up to 300 texts a day, but they aren’t responding to all of them," Barrett said. "They don't feel the need to do so. They are selecting which messages seem to be the highest priorities and then they respond. It feels like less of a task for them."

Barrett likens the method to the Caller ID feature on a phone.

"Before Caller ID, people would pick up the phone just to see if it was someone calling about something important," Barrett said. "Now, you can see who is calling and gauge whether or not you want to talk right away. Kids are filtering in the same way, but it’s something that adults don’t always feel comfortable doing. Some think balancing all of these platforms can be a burden and suck time out of the day."

The language

Another key element that helps the younger generation avoid digital overload is that they keep communication short and sweet.

"Language is always evolving," said Erik Qualman, author of the best-selling book, "Socialnomics: How social media transforms the way we live and do business” (Wiley Publishing, 2009). "It's difficult to read Shakespeare now because language has shifted. Similarly, kids these days can get to the point really quick in about 140 characters or less because of these new tools. When you get a post from someone who is older, they tend to write more — which takes up more time not only for the writer but for the recipient."

With that in mind, Qualman referenced a quote from Mark Twain that hits the nail on the head: "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one."

"It just reinforces that it's a great skill to know how to just get to the point — and kids are really good at that today," Qualman said.

Many also enjoy manipulating language and abbreviating words through texts and Facebook posts, whereas adults may spend extra time making sure their grammar and spelling are correct, he added.


Although many studies have been conducted about how multitasking can be extremely counterproductive, Qualman argues that social media and mobile use can in fact be very useful in certain situations.

For example, research has shown that on average people spend between five and seven years waiting in line: "You can spend your time daydreaming or make use of it in other ways," he said.

"Sure, you can pick up a newspaper or a phone, but a newspaper can be limiting and talking on the phone can be disruptive to other people around you."

And although many teens and young adults are turning more to social networking sites, adults seem to think they are using all of them.

"That's a misnomer — kids aren't on all Farmville, Twitter, Foursquare and other platforms; in most cases, they are just sticking with Facebook and YouTube," Qualman said. "Kids gravitate to what they find the most useful and that in itself is efficient."

That said, once they discover the tools that work the best for them, it eliminates redundancy.

"For example, instead of going to to gauge if a hotel seems like a good fit for you, Facebook Connect can show which of your friends stayed there and what they thought," Qualman said. "Multitasking like this can actually save time in the long run."

Changing communication

Although many adults feel as though certain digital platforms are an addition to e-mail, teens do not. In fact, only 11 percent of teens use e-mail to communicate with friends each day and choose instead to interact in different ways.

"E-mail doesn't support real-time, flexible contact with others," Campbell said. "You have to log in and also be online. Teens carry their phones with them [everywhere] and they can text their friends without stopping everything to respond. Teens do e-mail, but not as much as they prefer to communicate in other ways. But if adults aren’t checking e-mail several times a day, they feel like they’re missing something."

It's also no secret that teens love to text. In fact, half send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month. And one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month, according to a recent Nielson Co. report.

American youth today not only prefer to communicate with others through texting, they are also at an age when texting is just easier for them, said Sandra L. Calvert, a professor and director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University.

"Younger people have an easier time at texting because their fine-motor coordination is faster than adults," Calvert said. "Having sharp fine-motor coordination helps facilitate certain types of skills."

She also mentioned that viewing a small smartphone screen can be more tiring on adult eyes.

"It's harder for older people to adjust to the small print, and this can cause eye strain. It can also make texting seem more like a task,” Calvert said.

Another reason the stress of being digitally overloaded is felt more by adults than younger people is that one group is doing it mostly for play.

"Kids multitask to have fun — they go on Facebook, text with their friends, play video games and so on," Calvert said. "But for adults who try to multitask while they have a lot of actual work that needs to get done, that's counterproductive and [that's] when they start to feel the digital overload."

Samantha Murphy
Samantha Murphy was a contributor to Live Science, covering the tech industry. She holds a degree in journalism and cinema studies from New York University.