Although some people may think looking at memes is a "frivolous endeavor," a new study published in Psychology of Popular Media suggests that doing so may actually increase positive emotions and improve people's ability to cope with the pandemic.
Radio Advisory playlist: Behavioral health episodes
For the study, researchers surveyed 748 individuals online in December 2020 to determine whether viewing memes would influence stress and coping outcomes related to Covid-19. Of the participants, 72.2% were white, 54.7% were female, and 63.5% did not have a college degree. The average age was 41.8 years, with a range of 18 to 88 years.
In the survey, half of the participants were shown three text-only control images, and half were shown three memes. The three memes had the same subject (animal or human), cuteness level (adult or baby), and caption (Covid-related or not).
After that, all participants rated how cute and funny they found the meme or text and reported their levels of different emotions, including anxiety, stress, calmness, and relaxation. Participants also rated how much the media they saw caused them to think about information on Covid-19, their confidence in their ability to cope with the pandemic, and their stress about Covid-19.
The researchers found that participants who viewed memes reported higher levels of humor and more positive emotions compared with participants who did not. People who viewed certain memes, such as those with cute babies or animals, were also less likely to think about the pandemic or its effects on them.
However, the researchers found that viewing Covid-19 memes was associated with lower stress levels about the pandemic than viewing non-Covid memes. In addition, participants who viewed Covid-19 memes thought more deeply about the content they saw and felt more confident about their ability to cope with the pandemic—suggesting that information processing is associated with better coping.
Jessica Myrick, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and the study's lead author, said the findings suggest "memes, particularly those that relate to a highly stressful context, may help support efforts to cope with the stressor."
The potential benefits of memes
According to Myrick, while memes cannot completely reduce Covid-related stress, they can increase positive emotions, which can help people cope with the pandemic.
"While the World Health Organization 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," Myrick said. "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."
She added that online media has become an increasingly important tool for people, especially during periods of social isolation. "It is not a frivolous endeavor to be looking at memes, because you know that other people are laughing at this, too," Myrick said. "You can share it and bring the ability to cope with stress to other people, too. It's not just a waste of your time to look at."
In addition, Myrick said that communicating about stressful events through social media could help people process the information more easily and feel less overwhelmed.
"So you do not have to necessarily avoid the thing that is stressing you out,” Myrick said. "Instead, seeing this funny, cute social commentary about it actually seemed to help people feel less stressed about it and to think more about it, too."
Myrick added that public health leaders should capitalize on these findings.
"Public health advocates or government agencies could potentially benefit by using memes as a cheap, easily accessible way to communicate about stressful events with the public, though they should avoid overly cute memes," Myrick said.
She continued, "The positive emotions associated with this type of content may make people feel psychologically safer and therefore better able to pay attention to the underlying messages related to health threats."(Pruitt-Young, NPR, 10/21; American Psychological Association, 10/18; Sung, NBC News, 10/22; McVerry, Penn State News, 10/18; Lonas, The Hill, 10/22)