New research from a New Mexico State University professor shows the vast quantity of COVID-19 information from mass media outlets is causing poor mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression among Americans.
Jagdish Khubchandani, public health sciences professor at NMSU, was part of a team of researchers who conducted a quantity-versus-quality analysis of the impact of pandemic-related information on mental health. The study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity-Health, evaluated how people react to the quantity and quality of COVID-19-related information they consumed.
“We wanted to assess the impact of mass media information quality and quantity on mental health outcomes,” said Khubchandani, the lead author of the study, released almost one year since the start of the pandemic, as rates of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing across the United States.
More than 1,800 adults participated in the study – a collaboration between NMSU, Ball State University, University of Houston-Victoria, University of Toledo and the University of Florida.
The results show 49 percent of the study participants were either very concerned or concerned about the quantity of COVID-19-related information, while 51 percent were either slightly concerned or not concerned. Quantity refers to the number of information sources, options for information and volume of information.
The results also show 64 percent of the study participants were very concerned or concerned about the quality of COVID-19-related information, while 36 percent were slightly concerned or not concerned at all. Quality refers to truthfulness, accuracy, and reliability of the information on symptoms, prevalence, effects and other concerns.
“Overall, people seem to be more concerned about the quality of news and media they’re exposed to during the pandemic,” Khubchandani said. “The World Health Organization has already warned that we are dealing with an ‘infodemic’ along with a pandemic.”
Participants who were concerned about the quantity and quality of COVID-19 information were significantly more likely to be 18-25 years old, African-Americans, Hispanics, urban dwellers, individuals with an annual income of less than $60,000, and those without a college education.
“Unfortunately, the groups who are less informed, vulnerable and marginalized have been exposed to greater information and misinformation, causing fear in this population,” Khubchandani said. “These populations have been hit badly by the virus and related socioeconomic challenges. Mass media, including social media, is further impacting these populations adversely.”
Participants who were concerned about mass media information also experienced adverse effects on their mental health. Overall, the rates of depression (39 percent), anxiety (42 percent), and both depression and anxiety (13 percent) were high in the total study population.
Likewise, participants who were concerned about the quantity of COVID-19 information had a higher probability of depression (75 percent higher), anxiety (80 percent higher), and symptoms of both depression and anxiety (79 percent higher). But having concerns about the quality of COVID-19 information was not significantly associated with depression and anxiety.
“Much has been said about the quality of information from mass media and social media during the pandemic,” Khubchandani said. “Our study reflects that the majority of Americans, about 64 percent, are concerned about truthfulness and accuracy of COVID-19 information in mass media and social media. However, information quality in mass media does not influence mental health to the extent quantity does.”
According to Khubchandani and his co-authors, the most critical finding of the study is that the quantity – not the quality – of COVID-19 information is causing poor mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression.
“We must reduce our screen time and social media use, improve sleep and exercise routines, and avoid boredom,” Khubchandani said. “There are many long-term benefits to reducing the quantity of screen time. This will also help prevent consumption of inaccurate and untruthful information from mass media and social media.”
To read the study, visit https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666354621000168.