Source: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
By Grace Howell
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, time feels endless. Before self-quarantine and social distancing took over, time was a hot commodity. Now, children and adults alike are looking for ways to fill their time, often settling for extended moments on social media. We’ve known of the consequences of social media, both positive and negative, for a while. It serves us by keeping us connected to each other and the world. Yet, it also functions as a breeding ground for polarization, self-promotion, and fake news. COVID-19 does not change these realities. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is quoted: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” This moment of heightened anxieties and increased time on social media warrants the question: What are the mental health implications of this ‘infodemic’ taking over our feeds?
With the collaboration of four researchers from the University of Turku, the Military Institute of Science and Technology, and J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, 294 students and faculty at a university in Bangladesh were surveyed in March of 2020. This online survey questioned the respondents’ trust of online information, their threshold for information overload, COVID-19 perceived severity, and COVID-19 perceived susceptibility. Along with various individual factors, the survey also asked about the respondents’ personal experience with cyberchondria—the “constant online searching for health information which is fueled by an underlying worry about health that results in increased anxiety.” In this study, researchers wanted to know why people keep sharing misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, even at the expense of their mental health. These researchers understood the following:
“Indeed, the lock-down enacted in many countries with workplaces and social activities required to close, may have the unintended consequence of escalating misinformation and cyberchondria as people have more time at their disposal to overload on social media content.”
In an effort to find out why misinformation and fake news is still ever-present—even amidst the severity of the pandemic—the research found that though fake news may increase an individual’s worry about their personal health. But, a worry for personal health does not increase the likelihood that the individual would propagate fake news. Therefore, the presence of this crisis is not directly contributing to an increase in misinformation. It is simply an unfortunate side effect of social media.
However, with each factor that was measured—indicating an increase in online information trust, information overload, perceived severity of COVID-19, and perceived susceptibility of COVID-19—a significant increase in the presence of cyberchondria was found. Demographically, females experience higher levels of cyberchondria than males, whereas males had a higher tendency to share unverified information on social media. Research also suggested that older people experience less cyberchondria and share less misinformation due to a lower information overload and perceived severity of the crisis.
With our current reality of misinformation and increased time on social media, cyberchondria is a real threat. It has proven to be associated with functional impairment and increased anxiety. Knowing this to be true, how can we be proactive in our intake and involvement in social media to prevent such harmful mental health effects?
Ultimately, it all comes back to the source. The next time you are scrolling through your Facebook feed and see the latest ‘breaking news’ headline, take the time to consider its source. Is it a reliable news outlet or is it just fake journalism with a hidden agenda? Being able to decipher what news is reliable and accurate could significantly improve your mental stability during this time. In the same way, consider what you share. If you have reason to question the trustworthiness of that news article that has a gripping headline or even that silly meme poking fun at the latest update, maybe it is not a helpful token of content to share with your followers.
Another way to protect your mental health is to reduce your consumption of social media all-together. Instead of scrolling through the countless updates, complaints, and devastating news of the latest coronavirus impact, take a stroll through your neighborhood. Spend some time with your family playing games or watching your favorite movie. You could even bake a cake! These activities are positive influences on your mental health and can help to mitigate your risks for suffering from higher anxiety due to cyberchondria and information overload.
Being anxious about our health, our futures, and the state of our world is normal during this time. But if taking these small steps could prevent excessive anxiety from misinformation and cyberchondria, it could significantly impact our overall mental stability, increasing our ability to cope during this difficult time.
Grace Howell is a grad student at Wheaton College in the Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership program. She is currently studying various humanitarian crises, disaster risk management and relief, and best practices in response to her vocational calling.