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As the world remains in their homes in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the withdrawal from daily life has moved conversations about the illness to social media. Within weeks of scientists identifying COVID-19, rumors and misinformation spread faster than the illness itself. As the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General said at the Munich Security Conference, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic” (Hua & Shaw, 2020). During any community crisis, the public is going to seek out event-related information to remain educated on the current happenings in the world. The difference today is that technological advances, combined with the explosion of social media, have created widespread public access to media coverage of community traumatic events and images, such as those associated with COVID-19, as they occur (Holman, Garfin, Lubens, & Silver, 2019). We are seeing rampant misinformation on social media, which is sparking and perpetuating uncertainty and fear as people search for information on the illness. A constant flow of media exposure can create a vicious negative cycle of distress (Thompson, Jones, Holman, & Silver, 2019). The concept that continuous media exposure has negative consequences on humans can be found in extensive research done after other national traumatic experiences in the U.S. such as 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and various school shootings (Holman, Garfin, & Silver, 2014; Garfin, Silver, & Holman, 2020).

With the 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous digital platforms, the public is faced with an inescapable bombardment of information. Longitudinal studies have shown that heightened stress responses to media exposure during collective crises may contribute to adverse physical and mental health outcomes over time. For example, in a study of U.S. Americans’ responses to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, researchers found that increased hours of television exposure in the days following 9/11 were associated with an increase in posttraumatic stress symptoms.  In addition, high acute stress post-9/11 predicted reports of new onset cardiovascular disorders and other physical health ailments (Garfin, Silver, & Holman, 2020). Exposure to graphic images related to the Boston Marathon bombings was also shown to be related to mental health symptoms and impaired functioning (Holman, Garfin, Lubens, & Silver, 2019). As researchers begin examining the prevalence of mental health problems and their association with social media exposure to COVID-19 information and images, the findings indicate similar detriments to mental and physical health.

Earlier this year, Gao and colleagues (2020) surveyed Chinese residents to examine the relationship between exposure to social media during the pandemic and mental health issues. The researchers found that 82% of respondents reported being frequently exposed to information about the pandemic through social media. Nearly half of the participants exhibited elevations in depression and nearly a quarter in anxiety (based on WHO Five-Well Being Index and Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale-7). These rates are significantly higher than the latest national samples showing rates for depression at around 7% and anxiety around 8% (Huang et al., 2019). These findings offer meaningful insight into the serious mental health consequences of COVID-19, supporting the idea that social media exposure is contributing to the intensification of mental health issues.

Social media allows for news to have a global reach without any form of filtering or monitoring of the information being spread. When information is irregularly disseminated through social media, people are bombarded with a lot of contradictory information regarding COVID-19 (Pennycook et al., 2020). In a study with university students following a lockdown due to an active shooter, students who had direct contact via text messages and used social media for critical updates were exposed to more conflicting information and reported higher acute stress following the incident (Torales et al., 2020). This study highlights the impact misinformation can have on humans and the potential dangers of forcing individuals to determine the accuracy of information during a time of crisis.

Although misinformation could be an honest mistake with no blatant intention to mislead people, there seems to be an inclination for people to spread rumors. A recent study revealed that participants were willing to share fake news about COVID-19 regardless of whether they identified that information as being false when directly asked about its accuracy (Pennycook et al., 2020). The continuous output of rumors or inaccurate information throughout social media platforms creates a significant body of contradictory information, which in turn can impact the well-being of the public. Through two large-scale nationwide surveys, Yang & Ma (2020) found that participants’ perceived knowledge about COVID-19 served to protect their emotional well-being, regardless of their actual knowledge about the illness. Those participants who were confident in their understanding of COVID-19 felt they had a stronger sense of control over the situation, which in turn acted as a shield for their mental health. Unfortunately, the far-reaching pool of misinformation disseminated through social media prevents people from feeling confident in their understanding of the pandemic.

Not only does the misinformation plaguing social media cause confusion and fear at the individual level, but it also affects community and public health. Similar to human responses noted during previous epidemics (e.g., H1N1 Influenza, SARS), we are currently seeing how fears created by social media exposure are impacting human behavior (Cao, et al., 2020; Mcdonnell, Nelson, Schunk, 2010). Confusion and panic have resulted in consumer hoarding of face masks and respirators, contributing to a global shortage (Garfin et al., 2020). Misinformation via social media could be heightening perceived risk and exacerbating fears about COVID-19, causing people to act in ways that affect an already overburdened health care system.

Literature reviewing the impact of global crises on humans offers meaningful insight into the serious mental health consequences social media coverage of COVID-19 can have on the public. However, if responsibly used, social media has the potential to allow critical information about COVID-19 to quickly and effectively spread (Chan et al., 2020). The challenge becomes how to harness the platform to effectively transfer knowledge to the public without allowing misinformation to traumatize viewers, exacerbate fears or negatively impact mental health.

About the Author

Katharine Murphy graduated Magna Cum Laude from Bucknell University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She currently works as a clinical research coordinator at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx, New York. She manages a project investigating biological differences between combat veterans who respond to psychotherapy treatment and those who do not. In addition, she oversees a clinical trial exploring the effectiveness of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)-assisted psychotherapy. After she completes works at JJP VAMC, she hopes to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.


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