Memes have helped Americans cope with stress during the pandemic, study finds

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When the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Jessica Gall Myrick found herself scrolling through pandemic memes on social media for a little levity at the end of the day. The cute ones with pictures of puppies or babies seemed to work best for taking the edge off during those bleak months. She wondered: Are other people doing this — and is it helping?

Myrick, a communications professor at Pennsylvania State University, decided to find out. Last December, when coronavirus infections were surging, she and two other researchers surveyed more than 700 people on whether consuming lighthearted memes about the pandemic eased their minds in a scary time.

Her study, published this week by the American Psychological Association, concluded that it did. Respondents reported that viewing funny or cute memes helped lower their stress levels and made them feel more confident in their ability to face the global health crisis.

“People are using memes as a way to cope and talk about life during the pandemic, and to make social commentary,” Myrick said in an interview. “Because we’re isolated, when you see a meme about covid and it reflects something about our experience, it’s really powerful because you don’t get to have as much interpersonal interaction with people. There’s something about it that helps us relate to other people.”

The study is a small but notable bright spot amid research highlighting the negative mental health effects of doomscrolling and the role that Facebook and other platforms play in the spread of misinformation about the pandemic. It offers one piece of evidence that thumbing through memes may be a healthy way to help some people avoid feeling overwhelmed, provided the content is humorous and upbeat.

“If you’re going through a stressful time, the last thing or most difficult thing is feeling alone in that stress, or feeling as if you’re the only one in that situation,” said Rebecca Ortiz, a professor at Syracuse University who has studied the public influence of political memes and was not involved in the study.

“Memes are built upon the idea of shared cultural references and literal shareability on the Internet,” she said. “It’s not only the message that might be calming, it’s the sense that this is something that’s being shared among people who get it and might be struggling with the same issues.”

More investigation is needed to confirm any possible therapeutic effects of viewing uplifting memes. But the findings offer some insight into how a social media feed curated with positive content could provide some modest emotional benefits, Myrick said.

“It’s a way for people to think about, ‘How could I strategically structure my media diet, so that I’m self-aware enough to recognize when I get stressed out and know what kind of media can help me achieve my goals in that moment,’” she said.

The study surveyed 748 people, showing them popular memes from websites like Imgur and IMGflip. All featured animals and humans, some of them children. A control group was shown other media.

Among the meme-viewing group, some participants were provided with coronavirus-related captions while others saw the same image with its original caption. For example, when it came to a picture of an angry cat, it was captioned “New study confirms: Cats can’t spread covid-19 but would if given option” for one set of participants. For the other group, it read “New study confirms: Cats can’t sabotage your car but would if given option.”

Another featured what researchers called a “small stoic dog wearing a turtleneck shirt and glasses.” The covid-related caption read, “Me when I call it COVID-19 instead of the Rona,” while the original caption said, “Me when I call it Tar-jay instead of Target.”

Individuals then rated how cute and funny they found the displayed media and reported their levels of anxiety and states such as relaxation and calmness. They were also asked pandemic-related questions, including their stress about the virus and how much the images caused them to think about other information they knew about covid-19. Those who viewed memes reported more positive emotions, the study found.

The researchers noted some of the study’s limitations, saying additional research is needed to “understand how media use, more broadly, may help lower stress levels.”

“Still,” the researchers said, “our results indicated that viewing memes generated higher levels of positive emotions, which were positively related to COVID-19 coping efficacy.”

Another key finding was that memes about the virus aided people in processing the stressful news without getting overwhelmed by it — something researchers said public officials could benefit from in their attempts to communicate information to the public. Public health advocates or government agencies could tap into this type of content to reach people during stressful events, Myrick said, though they should avoid anything too cutesy. Baltimore health officials recently found success in a similar approach with a widely shared batch of memes promoting vaccinations.

Myrick emphasized that viewing memes was no substitute for seeking professional help for pandemic-related mental health problems, which experts say have risen amid the crisis.

“It’s a Band-Aid for sure. Just looking at memes can’t address the systematic health and mental health issues we have,” she said.

“I think of it as a quick, easy way to get a boost to your mental health,” she said, “and to cope with the stress we’re all feeling.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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