UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Viewing memes online may increase positive emotions which, according to Penn State researchers, can help improve one’s confidence in the ability to cope with life during a pandemic. The recently published study also showed that people who viewed memes with COVID-19-related captions reported lower levels of COVID-related stress than did those who saw a non-COVID caption.
Shortly after the start of the pandemic, COVID-related memes became almost unavoidable. Today, they are still common across most social media outlets. In the study, published in a special issue of Psychology of Popular Media, a Penn State research team asked if internet memes could help people cope with the stresses of pandemic life.
“What we found was that if you viewed memes, you were in a better mood which made you feel more confident in your ability to cope with life during the pandemic,” said Jessica Myrick, professor of media studies at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.
The online experiment consisted of 748 respondents who were shown a set of three images. The researchers told each individual that the images were from the internet. Half the people viewed memes, and the other half viewed something other than memes.
An example of a meme in this study is a photo of a dog or cat and a humorous caption. Some were COVID-related and some were not. Non-memes were colored boxes, similar to Facebook posts where users choose a background with their text.
The results showed that memes did not reduce COVID-related stress levels, but compared to the non-memes, they increased positive emotions that helped users cope with the pandemic.
“COVID-19 is super stressful, so this is not surprising,” Myrick said. “It will take a lot more than a few cats to lower our stress about a pandemic.”
However, Myrick said, memes can be “psychology beneficial” during stressful times.
The memes with COVID-focused captions prompted people to think more deeply about the content they just viewed, according to the study. This was also associated with greater COVID-related coping efficacy.
“This research shows that memes, particularly those that relate to a highly stressful context, may help support efforts to cope with the stressor,” Myrick said. “This is evidence that memes about COVID actually help people cope with COVID.”
She added that “memes, particularly those that relate to a highly stressful context, may help support efforts to cope with the stressor.”
Nicholas Eng, a Bellisario College doctoral student, and Robin Nabi, professor of communication at University of California – Santa Barbara, were coauthors on the study.