Repeated novel coronavirus media exposure may be linked to psychological distress
March 23, 2020
By Pat Harriman and Mimi Ko Cruz
While government officials and news organizations work to communicate critical risk assessments and recommendations to the public during a health crisis such as the new coronavirus pandemic, a related threat may be emerging, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine: psychological distress resulting from repeated media exposure to the crisis.
“It’s a public health paradox that has been identified during and in the aftermath of other collective stressors, such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, UCI professor of psychological science. “In the case of the current coronavirus, people may perceive it as higher in risk because it’s novel, compared to other viruses such as the more common influenza. This can increase worry that may be disproportionate in terms of the actual chance of contracting the illness.”
In a paper published online in the journal Health Psychology, Silver and co-authors from the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing – Dana Rose Garfin, assistant adjunct professor, and E. Alison Holman, associate professor – describe how media exposure during a shared trauma can amplify negative public health consequences.
Earlier longitudinal studies conducted by the team after the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombings and the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa showed that repeated high levels of media consumption and graphic content led to heightened anxiety during and in the immediate aftermath of threatening events. This elevated emotional response was associated with adverse physical and mental health outcomes, including cardiovascular disorders, post-traumatic stress and fear of the future. Beyond these physical and psychological effects, healthcare facilities can be overburdened by an influx of concerned patients and critical shortages of resources, such as face masks and respirators, that may be diverted from reaching those who are most at risk.
“There’s a relationship between stress responses and physical health outcomes that accumulates over time,” Garfin said. “Those people with the greatest concerns continue to seek out more media coverage, which may create a cycle of distress. It’s imperative for the public to avoid speculative stories and limit repetitious exposure to stories that offer little new information. News organizations must convey relevant knowledge without sensationalism or disturbing images.”
In the paper, the researchers also recommend that public health officials strategically employ social media, such as hashtags, to provide ongoing updates. In addition, they advise residents to connect with and follow the websites of government and community agencies and service providers for the most geographically specific guidance.
“Many questions about effectively keeping the public informed during a collective crisis, particularly with regard to social media, need further study,” Holman added. “We hope that during the current coronavirus outbreak, health scientists are beginning to design and construct such research to gain insight into constructive techniques that can be used by health agencies now and in the future.”