WASHINGTON — A little bit of humor can go a long way toward brightening up a bad day. Similarly, researchers with the American Psychological Association say humor can also help with COVID-related stress. The team reports people feel calmer and more content after viewing a few funny COVID-19 memes. Additionally, after viewing the memes participants felt better about their ability to “deal with” or cope with the ongoing pandemic.
“As the pandemic kept dragging on, it became more and more interesting to me how people were using social media and memes in particular, as a way to think about the pandemic,” explains lead study author Jessica Gall Myrick, PhD, a professor at Penn State University, in a media release. “We found that viewing just three memes can help people cope with the stress of living during a global pandemic.”
Researchers surveyed 748 people online during this research in December 2020. Researchers set out to determine if memes could influence a variety of COVID-related feelings including positive emotions, anxiety, coping, and information processing. The respondents included adults of various ages (18-88 years-old), with the majority being Caucasian (72.2%), female (54.7%), and lacking a college degree (63.5%).
The research team searched the internet and gathered hundreds of memes from websites including IMgur and IMGflip. The majority of the memes featured cute animals and focused on COVID-19 and researchers only moved forward with memes deemed both cute and funny.
Most of the memes were kept in their original form, but the team re-worked some to add in some COVID context. For example, one meme of an angry cat originally read “New study confirms: Cats can’t sabotage your car but would if given option,” but study authors changed that caption to “New study confirms: Cats can’t spread COVID-19 but would if given option.”
‘Cute’ and ‘funny’ can crack COVID stress
Respondents revealed how often they felt stressed or nervous over the prior month before researchers assigned them to look at three memes with similar subjects (animal or human), cuteness (adult or baby), and captioning (COVID-related or not), or one of three control conditions featuring no text at all.
After viewing the memes, everyone rated how funny and cute they thought each one was. They also reported how anxious, clam, cheerful, and relaxed they were feeling. Finally, each participant reported how much the memes made them think about COVID-19 in general, their specific stress levels in reference to the pandemic, and their confidence in their ability to cope at that moment.
Those who viewed memes reported higher levels of humor, less stress, and more positive emotions in general. Those who saw COVID-19 memes in particular were even more likely to experience stress relief in reference to 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,” Prof. Myrick adds. “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. If we are all more conscious of how our behaviors, including time spent scrolling, affect our emotional states, then we will better be able to use social media to help us when we need it and to take a break from it when we need that instead.”
Certain memes help people cope with COVID differently
Interestingly, in comparison to people shown regular memes, those who saw COVID-19 memes also thought harder about the content they had just seen and reported more pandemic-coping confidence. Despite this, COVID-19 memes featuring cute babies or little animals didn’t have have quite the same effect as other COVID-19 memes.
Researchers conclude that internet humor like memes can help people understand and process current events without being overwhelmed by the new information.
“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,” Prof. Myrick concludes. “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.”
The study appears in the journal Psychology of Popular Media.