Communicating Public Health: Conversations about the COVID-19 pandemic - Report 4

This, the fourth report of four for Future Care Capital from Ipsos MORI, looks at some of the discussions about mental and physical health among social media users during the pandemic.

The author(s)

  • Sylvie Hobden Public Affairs
  • Steven Ginnis Public Affairs
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Analysis of social media data provides insight into the lived experience of mental health during the first wave of the pandemic and lockdown in the UK, with two in five (42%) of the social media posts analysed containing words such as "anxiety", “frustrated”, "sad", "angry", “scared” "bored", "guilty", or "worried".

The study, conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Future Care Capital, used a combination of machine-led analysis, manual coding, statistical modelling and qualitative investigation to analyse some 27,497 social media posts from 1 February to 31 June 2020. It has a number of implications for the communication of public health as the country prepares for a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

In almost two in five (39%) of the posts analysed, social media users described feelings of sadness, anxiety, stress and anger (see Figure 2 below), with posts expressing these feelings particularly likely to have originated from the social media accounts of individuals identifying themselves as female (59%). A range of issues were discussed in relation to mental health – from the impact of remote working, to home schooling, uncertainty over jobs, loneliness and lack of social interaction, concern over one’s own health, and for the welfare of loved ones.

Many social media users described how fear of either themselves or loved ones contracting coronavirus had caused them to experience stress and anxiety, sometimes for the first time. In other cases, social media users described how the impact of lockdown restrictions rather than COVID-19 per se that had been the cause. For example, students and those who had been furloughed described the impact of curtailed studies and not working.

Social media provides some insight into the groups of people who may have been disproportionately affected by mental health issues – including concern among social media users for those who live alone, those who have difficult home lives or are at risk of abuse; children, pregnant women and new parents; and those with existing health conditions or with learning disabilities.

Physical health

The study also provides a picture of the physical health of social media users during the pandemic. Though discussion about exercise and efforts to keep fit accounted for the largest proportion of conversation, these were often driven by key policy announcements related to restrictions on exercise during lockdown. There were also discussions about high-profile initiatives to take part in virtual PE lessons with Joe Wicks and the ‘Couch to 5k’ challenge.

Spikes in other topics were also event driven, either in reaction to media commentary or the publication of studies which discussed the risk factors associated with catching or suffering badly from COVID-19.

Positive spirit

The analysis also points to the positive impact of social media during the first six months of the pandemic, with concerted efforts to keep spirits high by showing sympathy for others, encouraging people to keep in touch and care for each other and providing motivation and positivity around things to be grateful. This spirit was evident in a quarter (24%) of posts analysed through the topic model.

Social media was also used to promote offers of help and support and top tips. For example, the largest group of posts that specifically mentioned loneliness focused on how to support people who may be feeling lonely by sharing tips to reduce feelings of loneliness and providing information about online services.

Implications for public health communication

The data highlights the difficulty faced by the Government in responding to the pandemic since many policy interventions undertaken, such as restricting travel and socialising, have a potential impact on mental health and in some cases, the options available offer a lose-lose situation. This study suggests that there could have been an opportunity to encourage improved physical health as part of the Government’s strategy to help fight COVID-19, given the evidence that obesity is a risk factor for worse health outcomes from the Coronavirus in individuals.

Steven Ginnis, Research Director at Ipsos MORI said:

Social media data re-emphasises the challenges in supporting mental and physical health during the pandemic. For example, users point to a wide variety of reasons for feeling anxious, stressed or frustrated; many of which conflict with each other. Furthermore, posts on social media relating to exercise and physical health often emphasise the need for the public to adhere to restrictions of movement over the need to keep well. Yet, the findings also point to an opportunity to galvanise and support each other; using social media platforms to raise awareness of these issues and provide help and support to improve our wellbeing.

The author(s)

  • Sylvie Hobden Public Affairs
  • Steven Ginnis Public Affairs

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