by Grant H. Brenner
The COVID-19 pandemic is a prolonged, global disaster of epic proportions, unlike anything most people have experienced in their lifetimes.
Tolerating Ambiguity and Isolation
Unlike many disasters, which have a predictable course (see Phases of Disaster, below), pandemics don't fit a clear mold, with no clear end date, high levels of uncertainty about whether there will be ongoing waves of reinfection, unclear paths toward normality, limited data on infection and mortality rates, evolving information about infectious consequences, unclear risk of immunity, and a high level of impact on social relations from infection-control measures.
The mental health impact of COVID-19 and the direct neuropsychiatric consequences of infection mean that understanding factors contributing to post-traumatic growth and resilience are especially important.
Many people are isolated, living alone for long periods of time, and suffering from loneliness—though many are also thriving in taking advantage of opportunities for growth and change. In spite of the use of videoconferencing tools for both work and social interaction, telepresence is not a substitute for in-person human relations for the majority, leaving many vulnerable.
Leveraging Social Media
Social media is a positive channel through which people can seek and receive support and information. On the other hand, social media can also be a source of distress, retraumatization, rumor, and hostility, potentially worsening posttraumatic stress.
In order to expand understanding of how social media use after disasters works, researchers Levaot, Greene and Palgi (2020) from the University of Haifa, Israel surveyed people following a terrible series of fires in 2016 which ripped through communities, leading to injury, destruction of 1800 homes, and the temporary evacuation of 70,000 people.
They examined four main factors, whether: 1) people increased their use of social media, 2) people offered or received help via social media, 3) social media use was related to posttraumatic stress symptoms, and 4) social media use was related to post-traumatic growth. They trended data within 1 month and then at a second point 4 months post-disaster, with a final sample of 212 people completing both waves.
Post-traumatic stress (PTS) was measured according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) psychiatric criteria using the PCL (PTSD Check List). Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) was measured using a 10 item scale, the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory, Short-Form (PTGI-SF). Participants were asked about whether they offered help on social media, whether they received different forms of help on social media (concrete help, emotional support, useful information), and whether they used social media less, the same or more than usual.
Sidebar: Post-Traumatic Growth
PTG is an important possible response following traumatic experiences. Prior work on PTG shows that people are more likely to grow from adversity with moderate levels of PTS—low levels aren’t sufficient to spur change, and high levels cause more harm than catalyze growth. Traumatic experiences may challenge prior assumptions, creating the necessity to adapt to new circumstances and creating opportunity. Recurring challenges over time, in addition, may build resilience cumulatively when people respond adaptively, for both individuals and communities.
Via the following 10 items, the PTGI-SF gets at several underlying factors which contribute to growth: relating to others, new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, and appreciation of life, asking how much change happened for each as a result of the crisis:
- I changed my priorities about what is important in life.
- I have a greater appreciation for the value of my own life.
- I am able to do better things with my life.
- I have a better understanding of spiritual matters.
- I have a greater sense of closeness with others.
- I established a new path for my life.
- I know better than I can handle difficulties.
- I have stronger religious faith.
- I discovered that I am stronger than I thought I was.
- I learned a great deal about how wonderful people are.
The statistical analysis showed that PTG was independently associated with both offering and receiving help via social media. Asking for and offering help were correlated with one another as well; those who offer help are also more likely to ask for help, and vice versa. On average, women reported greater PTG than men did, but did not vary in terms of PTS.
The majority of respondents reported using social media more than they had pre-disaster, noting that on balance social media use was more useful than it was stressful. As with prior research, PTG was associated with PTS, presumably because the stress itself drives the need for development. In fact, researchers found that in this sample, over 25 percent of PTG was accounted for by giving and receiving help.
This study, while preliminary, provides research substantiating the utility of social media during times of disaster and crisis. While there is a risk of exposure to traumatic material worsening PTS, spreading disinformation and deepening political and cultural divides, social media used responsibly helps reduce uncertainty, dispel false rumors, provide emotional and concrete support, build community, reduce loneliness, share useful resources, provide an appropriate outlet for those offering help, and bolster resilience and foster growth for individuals and communities.
In addition, social media may assist distressed individuals in processing traumatic experience for those who can benefit from adjusting to the new normal, while at the same time providing support and resources.
Unlike traditional media which highlights predominantly negative information without offering help, social media may organically offer balance, allowing people to self-regulate exposure to distressing information, seek diversions, and give and receive help and a sense of community. People are advised to limit exposure to distressing material and seek treatment when post-traumatic symptoms are problematic. Research shows that over-exposure to media worsens reactions for many.
Further research is needed to understand the ever-expanding role of social media in disaster response and preparedness in order to guide best practices and understand what factors are most important, especially during COVID-19 where isolation and telepresence are core features.
The critical need for channels to give and receive help, build community, increase a sense of efficacy and control, and provide a form for safe collective processing of trauma makes social media a key platform before, during, and after crises.
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