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Mute those study-related text messages

Group chat overload

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Every course of every study programme has its own group chat in which people send countless messages all day. Students can’t take it anymore. ‘I don’t like them showing up on my screen.’
By MAI TENHUNEN
17 January om 15:37 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 January 2023
om 12:03 uur.
January 17 at 15:37 PM.
Last modified on January 20, 2023
at 12:03 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Mai Tenhunen

17 January om 15:37 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 January 2023
om 12:03 uur.
Avatar photo

By Mai Tenhunen

January 17 at 15:37 PM.
Last modified on January 20, 2023
at 12:03 PM.
Avatar photo

Mai Tenhunen

A few years ago, Marc Esteve Del Valle read a resume which boasted a rather remarkable skill. ‘It said, I’m able to manage many WhatsApp groups’, the assistant professor of media and journalism recalls. ‘At first I thought that was funny, but irrelevant. But maybe’, he chuckles, ‘maybe this person was a visionary.’

Because being able to manage WhatsApp groups has become an extremely relevant skill for students. Every programme, every peer group, every specific course has its own group chat, with often hundreds of members each.

‘I have at least five university groups with up to 150 members’, says computing science student Nadia Rocco (22). 

‘I’m in five to seven study-related chats’, estimates Tudor Dumitru (35). In the main group chat for his arts, culture and media programme, there are 150 to 200 people. 

Hundreds of messages

All these chats amount to dozens or even hundreds of messages every day, depending on what is going on with the course. Psychology student Nykyta Puotkalis (22) gets fewer than fifty messages on a normal day, he estimates. ‘But in exam time it’s a lot more, like 100 to 150.’ 

‘It’s impossible to keep up with during the exam period’, says Nadia. ‘Including spam and everything people write during exam periods, it can get up to five hundred messages a day’, says Tudor about his study programme’s chat. 

It’s impossible to keep up with during the exam period

One thing is certain: no student can keep up with that much communication. Esteve Del Valle has studied young adults’ WhatsApp communication in different countries, and the overflow of content seems to be a cross-cultural (and generational) problem. ‘The people we interviewed were exhausted from using WhatsApp. They had problems managing this overload of information. When you delve deeper into how people use WhatsApp, it can be quite scary.’ 

Yet the app is hard to ignore. ‘Students reported always having WhatsApp open on a second screen; a perfect way to constantly get distracted’, he says. Worst of all is that most people hardly realise how much time they spend texting, or scrolling through texts. Many wouldn’t even classify WhatsApp as social media, and it rarely receives the same scrutiny as its more obviously villainous siblings like Instagram and TikTok. 

Anxiety

The constant stream of messages can also lead to anxiety, Esteve Del Valle thinks. ‘WhatsApp has a sense of immediacy about it. People feel like they have to respond. If their boss is in the group chat, they want to show they are on top of things.’

Nadia recognises that. ‘In the first few days of a course I will still try to keep up with the messages and the information’, she says. ‘If you don’t join a group, you miss out.’

But after a few days, the fear of missing out is replaced by a desire to get out. ‘Then I think, this is just too much information that I don’t need’, Nadia notes. The influx of messages makes her feel overwhelmed, stressed, and irritated.  

Trivial

What annoys her is how trivial many of the conversations are. ‘People are asking questions to which the answers are already in the group chat. It’s recycled information’, she says. 

‘People will sometimes ask unnecessary questions’, Nykyta echoes. ‘Where is the exam? What time is the exam?’ Brightspace could answer these and most other questions, but WhatsApp is more convenient, he reckons. Answers are faster to come by than on Brightspace, which could be due to the changes in layout from course to course, Nadia suspects. 

Why are people writing in the uni group chat at 2 a.m.?

Then there is the whole spectrum of inappropriate messages, ranging from spamming and promotional messages to even spreading political agendas. ‘There are always people who post their ads on the group’, Nykyta says. Esteve Del Valle notes that this type of ‘phatic’ communication – which primarily serves to establish or maintain social relationships – is typical of larger groups that have weaker social ties, whereas with smaller groups ‘there is more genuine discussion, the conversation is deeper and there is more support’. 

Separation

That constant stream of information ensures that you never get the chance to forget about the university. ‘Why are there people writing in the university group chat at 2 a.m.?’ Nadia wonders. ‘It would be nice to have a line, a separation: this is university related, this is free time. If I open my phone late at night I can get overwhelmed: should I be dealing with uni stuff right now?’

‘It makes me think I sort of have to be up to date all the time, and especially during exams it’s distracting’, Nykyta notes. ‘I don’t like those messages showing up on my screen. I don’t think you should be available twenty-four hours a day.’

Sometimes chats even get out of hand, Nadia says, like when people start fighting. ‘You shouldn’t text like that, you’re supposed to be a university student.’ She feels there should be someone to moderate the group chat, or at least some rules. 

Nazi jokes

Tudor sees inappropriate content as a growing problem. He has seen nazi-related jokes and memes about specific people in WhatsApp groups and even witnessed social exclusion. ‘Sometimes a person’s messages are specifically targeted or intentionally not responded to’, he says.

I don’t think you should be available twenty-four hours a day

In part because of this, he took the initiative to create the main group chat for his study programme, to make sure the conversation stays respectful and on topic. ‘We have a new rule that during exams no spam will be accepted’, he says. ‘And of course there’s a zero-tolerance policy for hateful messages.’ 

As for the information overload, Nadia, Nykyta and Tudor found their own solutions: they’ve (mostly) muted the university-related group chats. 

A wise move, Esteve Del Valle believes. He applauds the ability to put the phone away and decide to not be available. ‘That’s fantastic.’ He firmly believes people need to be educated in media literacy so they’ll become more aware of their social media habits: how much time they’re spending on it, with whom they are interacting, and how to take ownership of that behavior.  ‘People should consider their media diet; the type of media we consume on a daily basis. Maybe in the future we will need media-dietitians. People who warn us when we’ve had too big a portion of WhatsApp today.’

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