A new study says fear of information overload appears to be more hype than substance.

Using a focus-group methodology, Northwestern University researchers discovered that in their sample, very few Americans seem stressed-out or overwhelmed by the ubiquitous flow of digital news and information.

“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, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern and lead author of the study.

Researchers say that most of the previous literature on information overload dynamics has involved fighter pilots or battlefield commanders.

In the new study, investigators sought to better understand how everyday Americans perceive the amount of information available through traditional and new media.

Study participants were recruited from vacationers in Las Vegas to participate in focus groups. Seven focus groups were conducted with 77 total participants from around the country.

Researchers believe the use of small informal 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.

The study was published in the journal The Information Society.

Source: Northwestern University