Young facing viral anxiety

Technology | Soumya Karlamangla 17 Feb 2020

The news of a novel coronavirus spreading across the world has become inescapable, including announcements of canceled flights to and from China, massive quarantines and updates on the disease's death toll and the hunt for its origin.

Health officials note the risk of catching the virus outside of China is low, but fear has continued to grow regardless, particularly among young people.

This is likely the first time that a younger generation has heard talk of a worldwide pandemic - as was discussed with outbreaks of SARS and the H1N1 flu in the 2000s - and therefore is particularly sensitive to it, experts said.

But even more so, experts have said the constant exposure to information about the virus on social media platforms and elsewhere on the internet is likely causing anxiety because of the sheer volume of information being shared - some of which is not even true.

Frequent updates and references to the virus on news sites as well as Twitter and Instagram can make the virus feel more threatening than it is, especially in an online ecosystem that tends to favor doomsday predictions over those that are more measured.

Even the proliferation of coronavirus memes and jokes can serve as another reminder of what feels like a lurking threat, said University of California, Riverside epidemiologist Brandon Brown.

"We spend a lot of time learning on the screen, and if we keep seeing 'coronavirus, coronavirus, coronavirus,' each time we're going to pay attention to that," Brown said. "There seems to be a lot of hysteria right now."

The outbreak presents a challenge for health officials trying to communicate across generational lines. Trusted agencies with high levels of expertise such as the World Health Organization aren't the places youngsters typically turn for information.

Mckayla Fontanez, 20, purchased hand sanitizer and began wearing face masks in crowded places after she learned about the novel coronavirus.

On the subway she now pays attention to what she touches - such as handrails on escalators and poles on train cars.

Yet she said she still doesn't feel totally safe from infection. She has followed a flurry of updates online as coronavirus cases increase and pop up in new countries.

"I'm still unsettled even though I do have my own precautions," Fontanez said.

Young people are particularly susceptible to anxiety because of the number of channels through which they receive information about the coronavirus - sorting through TikTok and Instagram videos, updates from their friends and families as well as news headlines, said Diane Francis, an associate professor of health communication at the University of Kentucky.

"It's the sheer amount of information coming across at one time, and the complexity of the information as well," she said. "It's difficult for them to decipher what is real and what is fake, and because of that, it induces anxiety and fears and worries."

The internet tends to favor exaggerations or worst-case scenarios.

Coronavirus jokes, intended to make light of the outbreak, often have a dark undertone. The bio for Instagram account @coronavirusplague, which exclusively shares memes about the virus, reads: "Just trying to make y'all laugh before we die."

Smartphones have given adolescents more information than ever before and made them aware of the latest disease outbreak, something that was likely not true a decade ago, Francis said.

But scrolling through headlines or tweets doesn't provide necessary context.

"A lot more people are going to know the name coronavirus, primarily because of the spread of the name through hashtags, through tweets, through the memes," she said. "But what exactly is it? How does it spread? Young people in particular are less likely to have that information than just know the name."

Alena Garcia, 21, peered over her black face mask at her phone as she waited for a train in a downtown metro station on a recent weekday. She first read about the coronavirus online last week, she said.

"Better safe than sorry," said Garcia.

People's imaginations tend to fill in uncertainty with worst-case scenarios, creating a challenge for scientists and public health officials trying to communicate about an emerging epidemic, experts said.

"The public wants to have this nice narrative, they want to understand everything in one story, they want it to be nicely packaged - and unfortunately that's not the reality we live in," said University of Southern California medical education lecturer Sarah Mojarad.

The ability for anyone to share things on the internet has removed the gatekeepers who used to vet information before it was widely disseminated, allowing others without expertise to fill in those gaps with conspiracy theories or other false information.

Francis with the University of Kentucky said that the coronavirus outbreak could provide a learning opportunity for public health officials trying to bridge a cultural gap with young people, experts said.

She said that officials could try sharing a meme showing that coronavirus is less dangerous than the flu in most countries. Though it's possible, she said, that it would be drowned out by the high volume of posts exaggerating the coronavirus' danger.

"We know how young people access information, but we're still trying to understand what works in terms of communicating to them in terms of risks of certain health issues," she said.

Ellie Mitchell, 22, first learned about the new coronavirus after she saw it referenced in a meme.

She quickly figured out that the flu is far more dangerous than the virus, she said.

The pharmacy technician already washes her hands after dealing with almost every customer who comes into the drug store where she works.

In the last couple of weeks, she started disinfecting her phone and wallet with rubbing alcohol when she got home from work.

But it isn't necessarily because of the coronavirus, she said - the outbreak just got her thinking about how to prevent infections generally.

"These items are carriers of germs - I'd rather take two seconds to do that than be sick for two weeks," she said.

Los Angeles Times (TNS)

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