Information Overload and Social Media, part 1

  • Posted on: 16 April 2020
  • By: Michelle Brightwell

This post is part of a series about media literacy. What is media literacy? It’s the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using information in all forms. (source

You’ve had a long day at work, and now you’re on your way home, thinking about your evening full of grocery shopping, volunteer commitments, or helping a kid with their homework or getting another kid to practice. You make it home, turn off your car, and realize that you really have no memory of the actual drive home. You made it home safely, but how? Your brain has automated the task of driving a familiar route to eliminate the cognitive load (the amount of energy your brain uses to complete a task) it takes for you to get home

Another example might be the act of tying your shoes. Do you actively think about tying your shoes step by step as you do it? If not, it’s because your brain has created an automated process (sometimes called a schema) to complete the task without taxing your working memory and increasing your cognitive load.

Our brains use other automated processes to help reduce cognitive load. These are extremely helpful in most instances – we no longer have to actively think to complete our everyday tasks, freeing up our brains for other information or actions. But when it comes to processing information we encounter on the internet, those automated processes are garbage.

In the modern world, we are bombarded with information constantly. Our brains are constantly parsing new information incoming from our emails, our favorite websites, commercials, and news programs. We are absorbing information while driving from signs, billboards, bumper stickers, license plates. While we’re shopping, we’re faced with 100s of thousands choices on applesauce, pasta types, olive oil brands, cereals, and salad dressings. We’re scrolling through our facebook feed and we’re parsing personal information from friends, silly memes from acquaintances, pictures of your cousin’s dog, Jimmy Fallon videos, and a plethora of news articles on a range of subjects from worldwide COVID-19 coverage to local human interest stories about the resiliency of our health care professionals and essential workers. Our brain can only process and hold so much information at any one time, and depending on the kind of day (or week or month) we’re having, that amount can vary widely. Once our brains are suffering from information overload, it becomes increasingly more difficult for us to make good choices regarding the information we encounter.

What is information overload? Information Overload is a situation in which you receive too much information at one time and cannot think about it in a clear way. (source:

How does this change the way we view information in social media? When we encounter more information than our working memory can process at a time, we aren’t able to make the best decisions about what information is most important, what information is the most trustworthy, and what information can be ignored. Our brains contain instinctual functions that help us relieve our working memory and prevent information overload, but those functions are not helpful when it comes to seeking out trustworthy news sources. When we are overwhelmed by information, our brains will automatically latch onto the information that gives us warm fuzzies, regardless of it’s authority and reliability. Our brains will actively ignore any information that we decide we don’t like (so if it’s a positive piece of information about a politician we don’t agree with, our brains will conveniently ignore it) so that we don’t become more overwhelmed with having to change information stored in our long term memory. When presented with incomplete information, our brains will complete the story however it likes, disregarding the actual facts. Our brains will actively latch on to information that reinforces beliefs we already hold.

There are strategies that we can all use to help combat our instinctual brain functions that prevent us from consuming media responsibly. The most important strategy is to seek out information from many sources from different perspectives to gain a better understanding of the subject. An easy way to check on a news story from different trustworthy sources is

There are more strategies to overcome information overload and combat some of our automated processes, and we will discuss those in the next post.

More information:

Crash Course Media Literacy from PBS, episode 4, Media and the Mind