A new survey from the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans say they do not feel overwhelmed by how much information they can get online. Instead, they say they've benefited from it.
The survey quizzed more than 1,000 adults this past September about how the Internet makes them feel and impacts their lives. About 87 percent of the respondents said the Internet helped them learn new things, and 72 percent said they liked having so much information, while just 26 percent said they felt "overloaded."
The report stated that variances in enthusiasm about the amount of online information were small — women were a little more likely than men to report feeling overwhelmed (30 percent vs. 21 percent), as were Internet users over age 50 (30 percent vs. 22 percent for those 49 and younger).
"The answer that we got is such an American answer. Given the choice, people like more choice and prefer abundance to scarcity," survey author Lee Rainie said. "Even though information is hyper-abundant, people probably feel they can find the stuff they want when they want it because search engines are so effective."
The results aren't a surprise to Harvard University's Dr. David Weinberger, who thinks people are excited at the availability of information rather than intimidated.
"I hear people saying they're so happy to be able to get information so quickly. Overall, that's a good thing," Weinberger said. "What you used to have to do to get information now sounds Medieval. Now, you pull out a mobile phone and get an answer."
Psychologist Jim Taylor says the survey results are a sign of America's tolerance for a lot of information, and that's not necessarily something to celebrate.
"The norm has changed and overloaded is the new normal for people," Taylor said. "But just because we have access doesn't mean we use it in a beneficial way."
Informed or exposed?
Rainie said he was most surprised at how many Americans feel the Internet helps them — and how many others, like students — learn new things.
But Taylor and University of Texas at Austin psychologist Art Markman say they worry about how much Americans learn online vs. how much they think they learn.
"Most people believe they understand the way the world works better than they actually do. Just being exposed to something makes you think you understand it," Markman said. "Because there's so much information available, there's a tendency for us to take that information in 3-minute bites. That doesn’t give us opportunity to really learn."
To really learn something, Taylor says, people have to not only take in information, but process it — a crucial step he says people miss in the break-neck speed of the Internet.
"Information is just a tool and it only has value to the extent that it's able to be processed and integrated. Looking at so much information at a time can’t necessarily allow that," Taylor said. "We need mindfulness when we take in information not only for our psychological health, but also for creativity."
To solve the problem? Engage with online content rather than just scanning it. Research topics rather than taking headlines at face value. Don't rely only on texting to communicate.
"If you take time to really read and make time for a conversation rather than a quick email or text, you provide more opportunities for real depth in thinking," Markman said. "That's something we’ve lost along the way."
Weinberger says part of the reason people might say they don't feel overwhelmed by information is because the term itself is so ill-defined.
"It may be that 'information overload' is a way of expressing some free-floating anxiety about the Internet in general," Weinberger said. 'But if we're saying that it has some deleterious effects, we have yet to find these people."
Weinberger said the term "information overload" was coined in the wake of another term from the 1950s, "sensory overload" — when people worried that too much exposure to new media like television and rock music would inundate the senses so much that a person would faint.
"As computers became more pervasive in mainstream culture, they called it 'information overload' — a term with very little meaning," Weinberger said. "It's the same reason we don't hear about sensory overload much anymore — it doesn't seem to be a real thing."
Weinberger theorized that the term 'information overload' originated out of fear of change. When the ability for anyone to publish and read anything they wanted online became a reality, Weinberger said, the publishing industry went through culture shock.
"The term originated with people who once controlled publication and took pride in filtering information for us," Weinberger said. "I think this survey shows that these people felt threatened and they warned us, ‘If we’re not there to tell you what to look at, you’ll suffer from information overload.’ ”
Weinberger says Pew's results don't surprise him given the way people think about being overwhelmed online. It's usually not about information, Weinberger said, but obligation.
"I hear people talking about feeling oppressed specifically with social media, where there is always more to read and an obligation to connect," Weinberger said. "That expectation for response — on email, on social media — can create overload."
While the term is murky, that doesn't mean people aren't feeling overwhelmed, as Rainie pointed out.
"There are people who do feel overwhelmed. It’s just not the majority," Rainie said. "People are making accommodations and adjustments to the new reality of things. This is the new normal for lots of people and they seem to have become accustomed to it."
Navigating that new reality means creating personal boundaries, Markman said.
"Almost every device has an off switch," Markman said. "Run a little experiment: If you shut your cell off for a couple of hours, does it have a negative impact on your life? Rather than just taking the world as it is, impose yourself on the world a little bit."