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Infectious Diseases

Updated 08 October 2020

Could social media use during Covid-19 increase depression and secondary trauma?

If you can’t stop 'doom-scrolling', you might want to make an effort to take a break from social media.

  • Social media can be useful for imparting information, especially during a pandemic
  • Unfortunately, this may also result in 'doom-scrolling', which can affect your mental health
  • If your feeds are making you miserable, it's time to take a break from the screen

If you scroll through all your social media platforms and are constantly being bombarded with bad news, you might want to take a break, researchers from Penn State and Jinan University urge.

The negative side-effects of social media were known well before the Covid-19 pandemic, but in these uncertain times we need to be extra careful as excessive use of social media for Covid-19 health information can be linked to depression and secondary trauma, stated the team.

"We found that social media use was rewarding up to a point, as it provided informational, emotional and peer support related to Covid-19 health topics," said Bu Zhong, associate professor of journalism, Penn State. "However, excessive use of social media led to mental health issues. The results imply that taking a social media break may promote well-being during the pandemic, which is crucial to mitigating mental health harm inflicted by the pandemic."

Steep increase in depression

The new research was published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior and included 320 participants from urban districts in Wuhan, China. In February 2020, as the outbreak escalated, the participants completed a survey which investigated how they accessed and shared crucial health information with their family, friends and colleagues on social media, specifically WeChat, a popular social media mobile app in China.

The researchers then measured Facebook addiction to assess the participants’ use of WeChat. They also investigated and assessed the participants’ views of WeChat.

In addition, they investigated any health behaviour changes by using a 12-item Depression Anxiety Stress Scale and found that more than half of the participants experienced some level of depression, while 20% of them suffered moderate or severe depression.

More than 80% of the participants experienced low-level trauma. None of the participants experienced any depression or trauma before the survey was conducted, the researchers stated.

What is secondary trauma?

Besides depression stemming from clinical causes, access to Covid-19 news can also trigger secondary trauma. According to Zhong, secondary trauma is any behaviour and emotion that results from a traumatising event experienced by a significant other.

"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 on WeChat," said Zhong. "The participants also reported a series of health behaviour changes, such as increased handwashing and use of face masks.”

"Our results show that social media usage was related to both depression and secondary trauma during the early part of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan," said Zhong. "The findings suggest that taking a social media break from time to time may help to improve people's mental well-being during the Covid-19 pandemic."

What you can do to switch off

Even though South Africa is experiencing a decline in Covid-19 cases and things are slowly returning more normal under Level 1, it’s still possible to experience fear and anxiety from worldwide news as cases soar in the Northern hemisphere and South African businesses are still suffering from the Covid-19 lockdown.

As you encounter different news sources on social media platforms, you might feel depressed or anxious. Here are some tips on how to switch off:

  • Enjoy activities that are entirely non-digital, such as cooking, baking, reading or painting.
  • If you are still working from home, make a set time to shut down your devices at the end of the workday.
  • Take stock of what you are exposing yourself to. Unfollow or mute news pages that don’t contribute to your life and follow more inspiring accounts or pages. Surround yourself with pictures of art, cooking, nature or whatever you enjoy.
  • Stay away from a digital “conversation” that adds nothing to your life. Stop scrolling through meaningless comments.
  • Get proper sleep and end screen time a couple of hours before bed.
  • Get professional help if your anxiety or depression becomes unmanageable.

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