“This is the most significant economic crisis in the Internet era and a unique period of information seeking and communication.” This sentence sets the stage for the latest report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project which finds that 2 in 3 Americans have used the Internet in the past year to cope with the recession. Pew calls this 69% of Americans, “online economic users.”

If information is power, then the Internet is providing Americans with the ammunition to deal with both personal financial challenges as well as general understanding of the economic downturn.

The most important searches online involve looking for bargains and jobs.

People with broadband tend to use the Internet more than either broadcast (TV/radio) or print (newspapers, magazines, and books) for personal financial information. But the Pew team rightly points out that Americans use more than one information channel to cobble together their perspectives on the economy, combining broadcast, print, professional sources, input from friends and family, along with web-based channels.

Even though 52% of Americans say they’re hard-hit by economic troubles, the Pew found that only 1 in 5 online Americans search at least once a day for economic information. One-half look every few days or less frequently.

Among the 52% of people hard-hit…
  • 35% had their investment portfolios drop by more than half of their value
  • 27% who are employed have had pay cuts
  • 27% of homeowners had house values fall by at least one-half
  • 14% have been laid-off or lost jobs.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: A concerning finding of the Pew study is that more people who sought economic information online became more worried and less confident after their online search. These online users tend to be more economically hard-hit than people who are less confused after going online. For example, 39% of Americans who read about the banking implosion online became more anxious about banks’ stability, and 37% became more worried about the economic future of the country.

Those who rate the overall economic situation as “only fair” or “poor” are more likely than those with positive views to be going online more often (33% vs. 16%), Pew found.

So, econo-chondria or empowerment? Online economic users, Pew found, are contributing their opinions online in places like Twitter and Facebook, among the many social networking sites adopted by a growing number of Americans. 34% of online economic users (30% of the online population and 23% of all adults) talk about the recession online. Pew got to this number by tallying the various activities people do online, from commenting on discussion forums on personal finance to sharing video files on the economy.

For online economic users who represent 2 out of 3 Americans, they’re getting real about the economy – especially to help navigate their personal financial positions through this recession. What will it take for the remaining one-third to get engaged online? Many will continue to be informed through broadcast, print, friends and family. The Internet is but one pipe toward personal economic empowerment. But it’s engaging lots of people just-in-time through online alerts and social networking.