Social media tends to get a bad rep for several reasons, like its addictive qualities and negative impact on our mental health. While social media does have its downfalls, a new study reveals that a certain facet of the internet, memes, actually helps us, especially in terms of alleviating stress and processing emotions surrounding the ongoing pandemic.
What is a meme?
Contrary to popular belief, memes existed way before the internet. The term “meme” was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins used the word to define an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from one person to another within a culture. Now that we’ve entered the digital age, memes have taken on new forms that are easily created, edited, and shared online. The ones that resonate most and gain popularity earn their own names, like “Distracted Boyfriend,” “Squinting Woman,” and “Handshakes.”
Penn State media studies professor Jessica Myrick teamed up with her colleagues Robin Nabi and Nicholas Eng to study how people were using memes to engage and communicate with others amidst a global pandemic, and to explore the effect meme-breaks may have on people’s pandemic stress.
Myrick’s team recruited almost 800 participants for the study, which they broke up into three groups. One group saw memes that had to do with Covid-19, the second group saw memes unrelated to Covid-19, and the third group didn’t see memes at all, but rather some image-free text that described the general idea of the memes in a humorless way.
After viewing the content, each participant answered questions about how they felt about Covid-19 and their ability to cope with pandemic stress.
Memes as mood boosters
The participants in the second group who saw memes unrelated to the pandemic rated themselves as more content and amused compared with those who only saw text, demonstrating that viewing memes, in general, offered consumers a quick rush of positive emotions for many people.
The researchers found that those who reported having more positive emotions were also more likely to feel confident in their ability to handle pandemic-related stress, which speaks to the value of reframing something stressful or threatening in a more approachable way using humor.
Participants in the group that viewed Covid-19-related memes rated themselves as less stressed about life during a global pandemic, and also reported reflecting more deeply about the memes and their meaning, which is something media psychologists refer to as “information processing.”
Those who participated in more information processing had more confidence in their capacity for dealing with pandemic-induced stress. The researchers hypothesize that spending more time and effort thinking about the stressors in life could lead to mentally rehearsing ways to cope with that stress, instead of simply sweeping it under the rug and avoiding the issue at hand.
So, don’t feel guilty if you find yourself scrolling through a meme page on Instagram for a bit longer than you planned these days. You probably need the break, and as this study suggests, it doesn’t hurt to use laughter to connect safely with others while confronting any pandemic stress you may be harboring.
Source Study: Psychology of Popular Media—Consuming memes during the COVID pandemic: Effects of memes and meme type on COVID-related stress and coping efficacy