It’s no secret that the pandemic has taken a huge toll on many people’s mental health, especially during the first wave of lockdowns when fear and anxiety were at their peak. And although crisis communication is paramount in order to dispel some uncertainties and keep people informed about potential dangers, the endless stream of newsfeeds related to COVID-19 and death rates have had the unintended consequence of making things only worse, from a mental health perspective.
There’s a lot to be said about how poorly the pandemic has been covered by mainstream media and how stupidly harmful conspiracies like QAnon and misleading ‘China virus’ narratives have been allowed to run rampant on social media. Let’s just say that history won’t be too kind when looking back at this tumultuous period. But at least we had some good memes to keep us sane.
A new study published today in the journal Psychology of Popular Media found that not all media formats have contributed to a worsening of mental health. Funny memes helped people feel calmer and better equipped to cope with the stress of the pandemic, according to researchers led by Jessica Gall Myrick, a professor at Pennsylvania State University.
“As the pandemic kept dragging on, I noticed old, but popular, memes being repurposed on social media to make commentary about life during COVID-19. Eventually it became more and more interesting to me how people were using social media, and memes in particular, as a way to think about the pandemic and cope with the stress of life during this time,” Myrick told ZME Science.
“We found that viewing just three memes can help people cope with the stress of living during a global pandemic.”
In a survey of nearly 750 people in December 2020, the researchers sought to determine how different types of memes and varying degrees of cuteness affected the mood and overall mental health of the participants.
Hundreds of popular memes that went viral on sites like “IMGflip” and “IMgur” were selected for this purpose and classified by factors such as whether the meme featured a human or animal, whether the human or creature was young or adult, and whether the caption was related to COVID-19 or not. Each participant had to rate the humor and cuteness of each meme. Those memes that were viewed as equally funny and cute were selected for the next leg of the study.
The researchers then went into the trenches and altered some of the memes from the shortlist, essentially making their own memes. For each meme, the researchers thus had a COVID-related and non-COVID-related caption in order to compare their effects. For instance, a meme might feature an angry-looking cat with a caption that said “New study confirms: Cats can’t spread COVID-19 but would if given option.” The non-COVID-related version of the meme showed the same cat image but with the caption, “New study confirms: Cats can’t sabotage your car but would if given option.”
“The biggest challenge was finding as many really funny or cute memes as we could to make sure we had a good pool of popular memes. My two co-authors and I are from three generations (I am a millennial, our second author Robin is a Gen X’er, and our third author Nick is in Gen Z), so what some of us thought was funny, there was always at least one other person who did not think it was so funny. It was a long process to find memes that were equally appealing to people across generations, but we were the perfect research team to tackle that challenge!” Myrick said.
“I had never really written memes myself before, just shared ones that other people made that I thought were funny or cute. For this study, we took real memes that we found online and just tweaked them slightly to help make sure that the differences between memes that different participants saw in our study were limited to the type of caption and type of image used. We did a separate study asking participants to look at more than a hundred memes prior to selecting the pool of memes for this study so we could ensure that the memes that were either about COVID-19 or not about COVID-19 would be judged as equally, realistic, funny, and cute. We also had someone who does write memes regularly review all of our memes before we tested to help ensure the slight edits we made for our study still kept the memes realistic,” she added.
In the last stage of the study, the participants were randomly assigned to view three kinds of memes based on their subject (animal or human), cuteness level (adult or baby), and caption (COVID or non-COVID-related). An equal number of participants were exposed to plain text without images to act as a control.
Based on the participants’ self-reported levels of stress and nervousness over the past month, the researchers found that the volunteers who viewed memes had high levels of positive emotions compared with those exposed to other types of media. Perhaps counter-intuitively, people who viewed memes with captions related to COVID-19 were more likely to report lower levels of stress surrounding the pandemic than people who viewed memes with no relation to COVID-19.
“We also found that the topic of the memes could affect how well they helped people cope with the stress of living through the pandemic. If people saw a set of memes with captions that were specifically about COVID-19, then they rated themselves as less stressed about COVID-19 than did people who saw memes that were not about COVID-19,” Myrick said.
What’s more, people exposed to COVID-related memes were also more likely to process the context of the content they viewed and felt more confident in their ability to cope with pandemic stress than those who viewed non-COVID-related captions. An exception was found to be cute memes — those that feature human or animal memes — which had no effect on how people thought about the pandemic regardless of whether or not they contained captions about COVID-19.
These findings suggest that using memes when communicating about stressful public events may help people feel less overwhelmed by negative news.
“Engaging memes can offer useful perspective, comfort, and validation for one’s own experience, all of which can be psychologically beneficial,” Myrick concluded.
“This study just exposed participants to three memes and asked them about their thoughts and feelings immediately afterward. It would be great to have the funding to do a longer-term study that better reflects our real digital lives where we see memes every day and test how this cumulative exposure to different types of memes can affect our stress levels and ability to cope with serious life events.”