Exposure to disaster-related media may be a risk factor for mental distress, but this has not been examined in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study assesses whether exposure to social and traditional media during the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with mental distress among U.S. adults.
Data came from the Understanding America Study, conducted with a cross-sectional, nationally representative sample of adults who completed surveys online. Participants included 6,329 adults surveyed between March 10 and March 31, 2020. Regression analyses examined the associations of (1) self-reported average time spent on social media in a day (hours) and (2) number of traditional media sources (radio, TV, and newspaper) consulted to learn about COVID-19 with self-reported mental distress (4-item Patient Health Questionnaire). Data were analyzed in April 2020.
Participants responding at later survey dates reported more time spent on social media (β=0.02, 95% CI=0.01, 0.03), a greater number of traditional media sources consulted to learn about COVID-19 (β=0.01, 95% CI=0.01, 0.02), and greater mental distress (β=0.07, 95% CI=0.04, 0.09). Increased time spent on social media and consulting a greater number of traditional media sources to learn about COVID-19 were independently associated with increased mental distress, even after adjusting for potential confounders (social media: β=0.14, 95% CI=0.05, 0.23; traditional media: β=0.14, 95% CI=0.08, 0.20).
Exposure to a greater number of traditional media sources and more hours on social media was modestly associated with mental distress during the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.