“Information overload” may be an exaggerated way to describe today’s always-on media environment. Actually, very few Americans seem to feel bogged down or overwhelmed by the volume of news and information at their fingertips and on their screens, according to a new Northwestern University study.

The study was published in the journal The Information Society.

“Little research has focused on information overload and media consumption, yet it’s a concept used in public discussions to describe today’s 24/7 media environment,” said Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern and lead author of the study.

Most of the previous literature on information overload dynamics has involved fighter pilots or battlefield commanders.

To better understand how everyday Americans perceive the amount of information available through traditional and new media, researchers recruited vacationers in Las Vegas to participate in focus groups. Seven focus groups were conducted with 77 total participants from around the country. The, small informal nature of the focus groups helped to reveal participants’ strategies for finding news, entertainment and gossip. 

“We found that the high volume of information available these days seems to make most people feel empowered and enthusiastic,” Hargittai said. “People are able to get their news and information from a diverse set of sources and they seem to like having these options.”

Most of the participants said television was their most used form of media, followed closely by websites. When asked how they felt about the amount of information available to them, few mentioned feeling overwhelmed or that they suffered from “information overload.” Here are highlights of the responses:

  • Participants had near-unanimous enthusiasm about the new media environment.
  • Online news was regarded more positively than TV news.
  • Cable news was often criticized for its sensationalism and stream of repetitive stories.
  • Trivial social media posts and opinionated political pundits are top sources of frustration when seeking information 

“There’s definitely some frustration with the quality of some of the information available,” said Hargittai. “But these frustrations were accompanied by enthusiasm and excitement on a more general level about overall media choices.”

The few participants who did feel overwhelmed were often those with low Internet skills, who haven’t yet mastered social media filters and navigating search engine results, Hargittai noted.

Other authors of this study are W. Russell Neuman, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan and Olivia Curry, a former undergraduate research assistant at Northwestern.

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1 Comment

  1. being overloaded and feeling overloaded

    This study says that people do not feel overloaded. That doesn't mean they aren't.

    A good example is the multitasking issue – what I would call parallel overload. Research has shown what you would expect to find – that most people cannot divide their attention and do as well as they would if they concentrated on one thing. Talking on a cell while driving is an example. When you can't attend to the action fully, you are overloaded. Kids will swear they study better with music or the TV on, they don't think of it as overload, but it is.

    Flitting from one thing to another is now common – I call that serial overload – distraction from too many offerings at once which, to me, would indicate information overload. Instead of following one course of action with the mind fully engaged, the mind is continually popping with new things to do before full completion of any one task.

    There's no denying we live in the age of information and it's a very good thing, if one can make use of it. But using it most effectively means having the ability to filter out all but the task at hand. Online articles are studded with hyperlinks, all may be good leads to follow but unless you can carry through and digest the article itself before running off on tangents, not much is accomplished.


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