More than 600,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But new research provides evidence that people have become desensitized to the health threat posed by COVID-19.
The study, published in JMIR Infodemiology, examined how online reactions to fear-inducing health news changed over the course of the pandemic.
“I’m worried that if COVID-19 takes another turn for the worse the public may be less inclined to follow recommended health guidelines, for example wearing masks and social distancing,” said study author Hannah R. Stevens, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis.
The researchers used a language processing program to analyze the content of 1,465 tweets that had shared links to news articles regarding COVID-19. Stevens and her colleagues also analyzed the content of the news articles being shared. The tweets were posted by English-speaking users from the United States between January 1 and December 2, 2020.
Unsurprisingly, Twitter users tended to use more anxious language when sharing news articles that contained more anxious words (such as “risk,” “worried,” and “threatens.”) But tweet anxiety was highest early in the pandemic, when the death toll was low. The impact of anxiety-related words in news articles appeared to become weaker over time.
“Anxiety in tweets increased sharply in response to article anxiety early on in the pandemic, but as the death toll climbed, it flattened out, and news articles seemingly lost their ability to elicit anxiety among readers,” the researchers said.
Stevens and her colleagues also found that as the CDC’s aggregate COVID-19 death toll increased over time, the level of anxiety observed in news articles decreased.
“While our study cannot help re-sensitize the public, I hope that it can be an impetus to get that discussion started. Hopefully, it will help people recognize that just because they’re not feeling acutely anxious doesn’t mean the problem has gone away,” Stevens told PsyPost.
“While this is certainly a concerning trend, we were not surprised to find that people are becoming desensitized to the impact of scary COVID-19 news. When we frequently experience something scary, we can become less sensitive to it. We see this frequently with research investigating desensitization to violence in media, including death,” Stevens added.
“Throughout the pandemic, the public has been repeatedly exposed to scary media reports of COVID-19 health risk and deaths. It is not surprising that individuals may be experiencing diminished anxiety over time, even in the face of an increasing threat. More research is needed to determine effective means of re-sensitizing the public. We need to think of new ways of communicating with the public. Desensitization is an emotional process; not all appeals to change behavior are rooted in emotion.”
The study, “Desensitization to Fear-Inducing COVID-19 Health News on Twitter: Observational Study,” was authored by Hannah R. Stevens, Yoo Jung Oh, and Laramie D. Taylor.