Individuals who seek information on social media more frequently tend to have lower knowledge about anxiety and exhibit an indiscriminate use of coping strategies, according to new research published in Psychology of Popular Media.
“I became heavily interested in this topic throughout the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. As time without a vaccine and increased quarantining went on, we saw increasing rates of reported anxiety symptoms and diagnoses in young people, particularly emerging adults (ages 18-28),” said study author Rebecca Wolenski, doctoral student in clinical psychology at Florida International University.
“With anxiety-related challenges on the rise, there became an increased demand for mental health services, which can be difficult to accommodate at any given time (e.g., due to supply and demand of mental health providers, lack of access to services, financial burden of services). Folks in need had more limited options to gain services due to quarantine and illness, which exacerbated this issue and also brought the need for anxiety-related aid to the forefront of my attention.”
“Simultaneously, evidence suggested that emerging adults were spending more and more time on social media sites daily,” Wolenski explained. “Theory and previous studies demonstrate that emerging adults, especially those that are anxious, will turn to digital platforms, like social media, to find more information about anxiety and how to cope. This type of information-seeking is itself a coping strategy and social media can provide immediate and plentiful information that may be more accessible than professional mental health services.”
“Data also demonstrates that anxiety and social media use are both still increasing in this demographic age group in recent years since the initial covid-19 outbreak. So, our study aimed to determine whether seeking anxiety-related information on social media platforms is associated with accurate knowledge about anxiety and use of adaptive coping strategies. In other words, our question was: is this type of coping strategy (i.e., social media information-seeking) a legitimately helpful option for folks in need of assistance?”
Between March and April of 2021, the researchers used the online crowdsourcing platform known as Amazon Mechanical Turk to recruit a sample of 250 U.S. adults ages 18–28 years. Of the entire sample, about one-half (50.2%) reported having an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
The participants were asked to indicate whether they “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always” sought out information about anxiety via seven different sources: social media, friends/family, books, internet websites, podcasts, television/movies, and therapy. They also completed a 35-item test of anxiety knowledge and indicated how often they had used advice or strategies suggested on social media for reducing anxiety.
The internet (e.g. Wikipedia, Google) was the most frequently used source for seeking information about anxiety, followed by friends/family, therapy, books, social media, podcasts, and movies/television shows. The researchers found that those who reported using social media more frequently tended to have lower overall knowledge about anxiety. This association remained statistically significant even after controlling for participant age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, and treatment history. Those who reported using the internet more frequently as a source of anxiety information, in contrast, tended to have greater knowledge about anxiety.
“Ultimately our data supports our original hypothesis, which is that emerging adults do in fact seek this type of information on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram,” Wolenski told PsyPost. “Moreover, more than half of our study participants reported often or sometimes using anxiety coping strategies that they learned on social media platforms. So, one major takeaway is that information gained from these platforms is influential to an extent on young people’s behavior with regards to dealing with their mental health.”
“At the same time, we found that using social media as a major information source is associated with lower knowledge about anxiety. Additionally, a small minority of participants looked to social media accounts run by mental health professionals for information (as opposed to individuals who are not experts, family/friends, etc.).
“Finally, social media as an information source was associated with the use of both adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., it seems that people are willing to try many different types of coping strategies, and data doesn’t suggest that social media influences consumers towards one direction or the other).”
Adaptive strategies included things such as getting emotional support from others, trying to see the situation in a different light, and “accepting the reality of the fact that it has happened.” Maladaptive, on the other hand, included things such as self-criticism, using alcohol or other drugs, and giving up trying to deal with it.
“Therefore, we conclude that while these sites provide plentiful and accessible information, they might not be the best primary sources to rely solely on.”
The findings shed unique insight into the relationship between information-seeking behavior on social media, knowledge about anxiety, and coping strategies in emerging adults. But future studies with longitudinal designs are needed to better understand the directionality of these relationships, the researchers said.
“Our data relied on cross-sectional analysis (e.g., correlations), so we are definitely interested in future work in this area to further understand the relationship between social media information seeking anxiety knowledge, and coping,” Wolenski explained. “For example, do individuals who have already established maladaptive coping strategies simply use social media more often? Do individuals with poorer understanding of anxiety browse social media more often for answers? Or does the use of social media end up predicting the adoption of certain coping strategies and provide misleading information? These are all questions to be further investigated.”
“We strongly suggest checking the sources for which individuals are consuming online,” Wolenski added. “It is helpful to confirm whether the information you are absorbing is coming from a reputable outlet. Additionally, there are strong implications for experts in the field of anxiety to build more comprehensive and accessible platforms online.”
The study, “Social Media Usage Is Associated With Lower Knowledge About Anxiety and Indiscriminate Use of Anxiety Coping Strategies“, was authored by Rebecca Wolenski and Jeremy W. Pettit.