While social media was rewarding to many users looking for informational, emotional, and peer support when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, excessive use led to mental health issues, according to a study published in Computers in Human Behavior.
“The results imply that taking a social media break may promote well-being during the pandemic,” researchers advised, “which is crucial to mitigating mental health harm inflicted by the pandemic.”
The study included 320 people living in Wuhan, China, in February 2020. Participants completed an online survey that assessed their experiences with social media on a 5-point scale; specifically, the instrument gauged how much informational, emotional, and peer support they felt from social media use, as well as whether social media influenced their health-related behaviors. Participants also completed the 21-item Depression Anxiety Stress Scale and the Secondary Trauma Stress Scale.
“We found that the Wuhan residents obtained tremendous informational and peer support but slightly less emotional support when they accessed and shared health information about COVID-19,” said researcher Bu Zhong, PhD, an associate professor of journalism at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. “The participants also reported a series of health behavior changes, such as increased hand washing and use of face masks.”
Although no participants reported any depressive or trauma disorders before the pandemic, more than half reported depressive symptoms in the survey. Such symptoms were moderate or severe in nearly 20% of respondents, according to the study. Meanwhile, 20.3% of participants reported moderate to severe levels of secondary trauma.
“This research finds that an excessive use of social media content during a public health crisis could be rewarding in terms of obtaining informational, emotional, and peer support, but at the same time, it might take a toll on mental health,” the study concluded. “There is no easy fix to people’s stress disorders during a pandemic.”
Zhong B, Huang Y, Liu Q. Mental health toll from the coronavirus: Social media usage reveals Wuhan residents’ depression and secondary trauma in the COVID-19 outbreak. Computers in Human Behavior. 2021;114:106524.