Memes may help people cope with the stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
Published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media, the study shows that funny Internet jokes known as ‘memes’ make viewers feel calmer and more content, as well as increases confidence in their ability to deal with the pandemic.
The study surveyed 748 people online in December 2020 to determine whether viewing memes would influence their positive emotions, anxiety, information processing, and coping in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also aimed to discover how memes with different content and subjects could affect the participants.
Ranging from 18 to 88 years old with an average age of 41.8, participants were mostly white (72.2%), female (54.7%), and without a college degree (63.5%).
Hundreds of memes were categorized based on factors such as whether the image featured a human or an animal, if the human or animal was young or old, and whether the caption focused on COVID-19 or not. Some memes featured original captions to create COVID-related versus non-COVID-related versions of each meme, as researchers wanted to see the impact of COVID-based jokes.
For example, one meme featured a picture of an angry cat with a COVID-related caption that said, “New study confirms: Cats can’t spread COVID-19 but would if given option.” The non-COVID-related version of the meme showed the same cat image with the caption, “New study confirms: Cats can’t sabotage your car but would if given option.”
After viewing the memes, participants rated how cute/funny they found the meme and reported their levels of anxiety and positive emotions, such as calmness, relaxation and cheer.
The study concluded that people who viewed memes compared with other types of media reported higher levels of humor and more positive emotions. People who viewed COVID-related memes were even more likely to have lower stress levels than people who viewed memes without COVID-related captions. Interestingly, people who viewed cute memes featuring babies or puppies were less likely to think about the pandemic – even when the memes’ captions were about COVID-19.
“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,” said Dr. Jessica Gall Myrick, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who co-authored the study. “We found that viewing just three memes can help people cope with the stress of living during a global pandemic.”
The new findings suggest that social media content about traumatic public events can help people process news without getting overwhelmed by it, according to Myrick.
“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," she said. "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.”