Cute memes can help deal with Covid-related stress, study says

COVID-19 linked to neonatal complications

For the study, which was published in a special issue of Psychology of Popular Media, researchers showed 748 participants various images. Half of the participants were shown text superimposed on a colorful background, similar to a Facebook post. The other half were shown images of cute animals, which either had a funny non-Covid caption or a Covid-related quip.  The study, however, suggests that memes not only provide mood-boosting entertainment, but also can serve as a valuable communication tool for disseminating information about stressful issues, like the Covid pandemic. A non-Covid meme, for example, showed a studious chihuahua wearing a black turtleneck and square glasses captioned, “me when I call it Tar-jay instead of Target.” The Covid-related version showed the same image and read, “me when I call it Covid-19 instead of the rona.”

“They then reported that they were more confident in their ability to cope with the stress associated with living during this pandemic era.” “People said that after they viewed the memes, they were more content, or amused or relaxed,” said Myrick, who co-authored the study with Nicholas Eng, a Bellisario College doctoral student, and Robin Nabi, professor of communication at University of California Santa Barbara.

The research comes amid a fresh wave of skepticism about the impact social media has on mental health, as young women in particular are subjected to highly edited unrealistic beauty standards. Jessica Myrick, study co-author and a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies the psychology of media use, told NBC News that viewing memes won’t necessarily cure you of all stress. But, the research did find a “direct connection” between experiencing positive emotions after viewing memes and a “stronger ability” to cope with stress.

The fact that participants reported thinking more deeply about the Covid-related examples shows that memes can be an effective communication tool for spreading information.  Ricky Sans, Instagram’s strategic partner manager for memes — a role he describes as a “meme liaison” for creators — said large meme accounts pivoted to posting lighthearted Covid-related content last year. “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.”

The study also suggests that processing information is associated with better coping. Participants who viewed Covid-related memes reported thinking more deeply about what they saw than when they viewed non-Covid memes, in addition to reporting feeling less stressed about the virus.  Participants who viewed images with Covid-related captions reported lower Covid-related stress levels. Viewing the same image with a caption not related to Covid didn’t reduce Covid-related stress, but participants reported feeling more positive emotions than those who viewed the Facebook-like text boxes. 

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