Information overload is a serious problem in the 21st century and one that plagues university students.


“A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person is likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th-century England,” writes Richard Saul Wurman in the book Information anxiety, published in 1989. In 2012, 2.5 quintillion (one quintillion can be expressed as a one followed by 18 zeros) bytes of data containing information were created every day, reports Marcia Conner, adviser to large organisations on effective management.

It is evident that we live in a society that constantly inundates us with information. Information overload is a serious problem in the 21st century and one that plagues university students. At university, the large amount of information in each study module can be overwhelming. Individual class notes, notes posted on ClickUP, additional resources that need to be consulted and assignments that have to be done all contribute to information overload, says Dr Nisha Sewdass of the Department of Information Technology.

Barbara Etzel and Peter Thomas describe information overload in their book Personal information management: tools and techniques for achieving professional effectiveness as having to deal with too much information in a certain time span. Information is everything that surrounds and informs a person about events, problems, actions and people. It may reach a person through news on the radio or television and gossip from friends, Etzel and Thomas say.

Dr Sewdass adds that, in a student’s personal environment, the internet in general and social media like Facebook and Twitter can also overwhelm and bombard students with information that may not be useful. Social networking tools like Facebook were created for a specific purpose – worldwide communication – but many users do not understand the purpose of these sites. In South Africa,, a social media analytics platform, recently released data that says Facebook has lost close to a million users over the past three months because users have realised that these social networking sites do not provide them with useful information applicable to their everyday lives. Emails that heap up in inboxes, documents stored on a computer desktop and too many text messages can all cause information overload. People have a tendency to hoard information because they feel one day it might come in handy, with the result that they keep irrelevant information.

In his book, Information Overload: a system for better managing everyday data, Guus Pijpers explains how many people complain that they put an item somewhere but cannot remember where. Pijpers says only a few people organise their personal collection of photos, papers and books like a librarian would in a systematic way. The belief that organising will take too much time and only bring small advantages lead people to rely on their memory instead to find items and this does not help combat information overload.

Procrastination is another cause of information overload. Pijper explains procrastination using the “principle of least effort”. While most people claim to have very busy lives, they might realise that they are in fact a little lazy. People choose the easiest path to finding information. For example, they would rather ask someone what the content of a chapter is rather than read it themselves. Quality and reliability is often compromised for convenience, time and cost saving.

For students, the implications of information overload mean less free time. Andrea Griffiths and Bob Norton write in the book Handling information overload in a week that information overload may mean poor decision-making and could affect your emotions because of the anxiety that too much information to deal with causes.

Information overload can have implications on a student’s health as well. Increased cardiovascular stress and a rise in blood pressure, frustration and less efficient working can be some of these negative implications.

Heine Erasmus, a second-year BSc Human Physiology, Genetics and Psychology student, says he suffers from information overload. “There are so many different things to process, like studies and also social situations,” he says. Michelle Elliott, a third-year mechanical engineering student agrees. “University is a big leap from school. A lot of work needs to be processed and you need to constantly work to get all the academic work finished,” she says.

Photo: Paul dos Santos

Website | view posts