How did exposure to news on COVID-19 through social platforms impact psychological health and behavior?

In a recent study published in Scientific Reports, researchers determined the relationship between exposure to news on the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic through social media, feelings of fear and anxiety, and changes in behavior in the adult Iranian population.

Exposure to the COVID-19 news on social media and consequent psychological distress and potential behavioral change
Study: Exposure to the COVID-19 news on social media and consequent psychological distress and potential behavioral change. Image Credit: View Apart/Shutterstock.com

Background

During the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak, individuals have been increasingly using social media to share news and information. This increased use may be due to quarantine and physical distancing measures, as well as the need for communication between families and friends.

The pandemic has also led to the spread of misleading rumors and disinformation, posing risks to people’s health. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns against using fake information and avoiding an “infodemic,” emphasizing the importance of fact-checking before sharing information to prevent negative consequences.

About the study

In the present cross-sectional study, researchers investigated the behavioral and psychological implications of COVID-19-related news exposure through social platforms among Iranian adults.

During COVID-19 in April of 2020, a telephone survey was conducted including adults of Iranian origin who could speak Persian, accessed one or more social media platforms, and were exposed to SARS-CoV-2 outbreak news through social platforms. Eligible people were chosen at random from a list of postal codes using their smartphones (random digit dialing).

A questionnaire, designed by the researchers, was used to collect demographic information (age, gender, educational attainment, employment, marital status, and socioeconomic position) as well as questions about exposure to COVID-19 news and behavioral and psychological reactions to COVID-19.

Multivariable logistic regression models were used to determine odds ratios (ORs) for the association between fear, anxiety, behavioral changes, and independent socioeconomic characteristics, including COVID-19 news exposure. Seven experts, including two journalists, three health psychologists, and two epidemiologists, validated the questionnaire.

Results and discussion

In total, 1,563 individuals (mean age: 39 years) responded to the survey. Among the participants, 50% had intermediate socioeconomic status, 60% had attained high school-level education, and 35% had attended colleges or universities.

Nearly 55% of respondents experienced moderate-high levels of anxiety and 54% experienced fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2. Among the participants, 88% documented some degree of changed behavior.

Among the variables, exposure to news on the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak through social media platforms influenced psychological health, increasing anxiety, fear, as well as behavior, with OR values of 2.20, 1.95, and 2.00, respectively, to the greatest extent. 

Individuals reported that they took more preventive measures (face mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing) after being exposed to pandemic news through social platforms. SARS-CoV-2 infection fear was linked to sociodemographic variables such as female sex, employment, and intermediate economic status.

Increased exposure to news on COVID-19 through social media was linked to greater anxiety. This anxiety appeared to stem from the uncertainty surrounding the nature of the pandemic and the lack of effective preventive measures. The study was conducted at the beginning of the pandemic when social media was filled with negative news and misinformation.

Users were often unaware of the difference between true and fake news, and governments often had limited strategies to manage the situation. Economic sanctions and vaccine supply limitations also contributed to increased fear among those actively following news on COVID-19 via social platforms. However, exposure to COVID-19 news also induced positive changes in behavior.

Official departments’ efforts to increase public awareness of prevention strategies, such as providing updated information on websites and social media, may have contributed to individuals adopting preventive behaviors.

Exposure to social media increases users’ awareness about ways to protect themselves against COVID-19, and risk perception is related to adopting preventive behaviors such as social distancing and mask use.

Conclusions

Based on the study findings, the media has an important role in crisis response through educating the public, influencing good behavioral changes, and influencing mental health. While exposure to pandemic news through social media caused dread and anxiety, it also had a favorable effect on individuals’ health behaviors toward preventative measures.

Improving people’s media literacy so they can recognize trustworthy information and distribute trustworthy content on social media appears to be vital. Governments could also deal with the ‘infodemic’ by providing timely, up-to-date, and credible information to prevent disinformation from spreading. They are also responsible for introducing respectable sources of trustworthy information.

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