Internet memes are meant to be humorous but they may also have another positive effect – helping us cope with pandemic stress, according to a new study.
Researchers presented 784 people with various largely unaltered meme images alongside different captions, some related to Covid-19, others not.
Lead author Professor Jessica Gall Myrick, from Pennsylvania State University, said: “As the pandemic kept dragging on, 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.
“We found that viewing just three memes can help people cope with the stress of living during a global pandemic.”
They began by measuring how nervous or stressed participants felt, before showing some three randomly selected memes, while others looked at control conditions with plain text and no images.
After viewing the media, people were asked to rate what they had seen based on the humour and cuteness, as well as their levels of anxiety and positive emotions such as calmness, relaxation and cheer, and how much it caused them to think about other information they knew about Covid-19.
Researchers noticed that those who viewed memes compared with other types of media reported higher levels of humour and more positive emotions.
People who saw memes with captions related to coronavirus were even more likely to have lower stress levels about the pandemic than people who viewed memes without Covid-related captions, the study authors claimed.
Prof Myrick said: “While the World Health Organisation recommended that people avoid too much Covid-related media for the benefit of their mental health, our research reveals that memes about Covid-19 could help people feel more confident in their ability to deal with the pandemic.
“This suggests that not all media are uniformly bad for mental health and people should stop and take stock of what type of media they are consuming.
“If we are all more conscious of how our behaviours, including time spent scrolling, affect our emotional states, then we will better be able to use social media to help us when we need it and to take a break from it when we need that instead.”
– The study is published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media.