Has the media’s obsession with the COVID-19 pandemic put global mental health at risk?
GLOBAL CLINICAL REFLECTIONS
Due to COVID-19 pandemic, most of us had to alter our everyday routines significantly, as governments around the world imposed lockdowns and restricted movement. Media was the key source of information, a place to listen to the guidelines and recommendations of national and international authorities. Misconceptions and exaggerations of COVID-related news in the media has impacted global mental health, signifying the need for credible information.
Dissemination of Disinformation
As of June 9, 2021, the virus had claimed the lives of almost 3,744,408 individuals around the world.1 Given the deadliness of the virus, the public has understandably looked to the media to keep them informed and safe.
As a disseminating tool, mass media—print, radio, television, and the internet—has never been more expansive.2 During a public health crisis, the media has a direct impact on individual behavior in both positive and negative ways, affecting people of all ages.3 Consequently, if information about COVID-19 is exaggerated or full of misconceptions, then the media can cause alarm in the general public.4
Inaccurate information spreads quickly and widely, and digital media makes it more difficult to identify and verify facts.5 According to research, social media and the dissemination of disinformation are linked to mental health issues, such as fake news causing worry, panic, and paranoia.6
The Double-Edged Sword: Misinformation and Awareness
Media pollution, which can intensify anxiety, concern, insecurity, and frustration, as well as contribute to unsuccessful therapies, noncompliance with preventive measures, discrimination, and stigma, is inextricably linked to misinformation and false news. In this perspective, the media is viewed as a double-edged sword: it may either contribute to the misinformation load or contribute to health awareness and collaboration.7
Although social media plays an important role in modern life, its ubiquity during the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns. While the coronavirus ravaged the world, individuals primarily used social media to absorb news and interact with their friends and families8; however, a large amount of disinformation, much of it frightening and alarmist, may have led to the emergence of a new disorder: COVID-19 anxiety syndrome.9 Inability to leave the house due to COVID-19 fears, constant testing for signs even when not in a high-risk environment, and avoidance of social situations are all symptoms of COVID-19 anxiety syndrome.
Recent global research studies have confirmed COVID-19’s huge effect on mental and emotional well-being. For example, a study of 267 Pakistani employees from different organizations discovered a correlation between poor social media use, fear of COVID-19, and depression during the epidemic.10 Higher levels of social media use and more exposure to disaster news via social media were also related to higher levels of depression in participants with high levels of disaster stress.11
Another online survey of 1049 South Koreans found a correlation between COVID-19 disinformation exposure and psychological distress, including anxiety (aOR 1.80, 1.24-2.61), depression (aOR 1.47, 1.09-2.00), posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms (aOR 1.97, 1.42-2.73), and misinformation belief (aOR 7.33, 5.17-10).12 An online assessment of mass media and its impact on general public in North India during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated high levels of anxiety in the respondents aged 40 to 49 year (27.3%), fear in the respondents aged 30 to 39 (43.18%) years, and panic in the respondents aged 50 to 59 (28%).4
Excessive worry and constant media consumption can make anxiety difficult to control. The constant flow of information as it comes out tends to create a deep fear of simply not knowing. The internet is full of individuals asking about what will come next and how bad it will be. The news media keeps the public informed by bombarding them with whatever new information they have about COVID-19, which is important from a public health perspective but also plays into unreasonable anxieties.13
“We are not simply fighting an epidemic; we are battling an infodemic,” the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General said. This statement is a recognition of social media’s raw power, as well as a sign of how far we have to go in terms of limiting the spread of deadly lies online.12
India’s Battle With COVID-19
Right now, India is battling with a second wave of COVID-19. India reported over 29 million confirmed cases of COVID-19: 29,183,121 cases and 359,695 deaths as of June 10, 2021.14
There is an immediate need to study how fear of illness spreads socially during a pandemic, and to find the relation between use of COVID-19-related misinformation, and the emotional reactions such as anxiety, fear, and depression among populations like that in India. Excessive reports about the risks of the disease can trigger anxiety and unnecessary visits to hospital emergency departments, stressing the health care system.
In the current pandemic situation, the media is critical for gathering information about the pandemic. However, the COVID pandemic was obsessively covered around the world, and India was no exception.15 Misinformation widely disseminated through the media has the potential to damage public trust and complicate the fight against COVID-19. As a result, research on the psychological effects of media consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic is required.16
Before disseminating news through mass media, it is necessary to evaluate the source, validity, and reliability of the information before considering it for publication, as well as to apply some filtering to the material. Media should focus both on disseminating scientific information and on spreading positivity. Both scientific knowledge and personal resilience are needed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Media should not disseminate any news, videos, and images that may mislead the public or put them into a state of emotional turmoil. Instead, the aim should be mitigating the harm from misinformation and promoting healthy behavior in the public. Content should be fact-checked and should be tailored to specific contexts and communities.
The WHO said it best when they suggested we must “immuniz[e] the public against misinformation.”17 The media plays a very crucial role in disseminating evidence-based information. It can help prevent lethal health outcomes and improve mental health in the context of a global pandemic. In the interest of public health, mass media must be encouraged, but any potentially misleading or incorrect material must be verified before being disseminated.
Savitha Prabhu is assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health Nursing at the Manipal College of Nursing, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, India. Shalini G. Nayak is corresponding author and an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Surgical Nursing at the Manipal College of Nursing, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, India.
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17. World Health Organization. Immunizing the public against misinformation. August 25, 2020. Accessed August 24, 2021. https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/immunizing-the-public-against-misinformation