COVID-19 stress is affecting how we use our screens, Concordia study finds

The European Union is urging Netflix and other streaming platforms to stop showing video in high definition to prevent the internet from breaking under the strain of unprecedented usage due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Shutterstock)

New research shows turning to media can help ease the stress caused by the pandemic, but what type of media depends a lot on gender and age.

Concordia University researcher and neuroscientist Najmeh Khalili-Mahani looked at the relationship between screen use and stress during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The study builds on Khalili-Mahani’s previous research into the link between stress and screen addiction, which found people did turn more to online media as a way of reducing stress. 

The pandemic and the ensuing isolation provided a whole new level of stress for Khalili-Mahani to study with a focus on how often people turn to technology for information, entertainment and socializing.

“Our question in this new study was whether increased stress causes an increase in screen use, and this is what we found to be true,” said Khalili-Mahani.

Khalili-Mahani launched a survey shortly before the lockdown began in mid-March. “In a previous study, what we found was a strong and robust correlation between stress and the usage of screens for entertainment and social networking, but the occasion of the COVID-19 lockdown allowed us to look at whether it caused an increase in the usage of certain media types.” 

Close to 700 people surveyed said that their use of streaming services increased, along with social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and online video conferencing platforms. 

“Using media in a passive, distractive way was important for respondents,” said Khalili-Mahani. 

Respondents who considered their mental health not good were twice as likely to prefer streaming services as a coping tool for self-isolation, results published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research showed.

The study also found people prefer different media based on gender and age.

Women were twice as likely to turn to social media as men to cope with COVID-related stress. Women, especially those over 55, were also more likely to ignore it if they found much of the content misleading or overwhelming. 

Age came into play when considering preferences for new versus old media. 

Respondents under 35 years old were three times more likely to opt for video games, while people 55 years old and up were more likely to turn to television and print media to relieve stress. 

The study found the same was true when it came to concerns over the toll of screen use on mental and physical health. Younger respondents, who use more social media and less print material, were more concerned about how screen time affected their physical health. 

Meantime, older respondents said they were more worried about the effects on their mental well-being.

There is common ground, however, when it comes to which activity participants, no matter the age or gender, would choose to do in front of a screen. Ninety per cent said they turn to streaming services such as Crave and Netflix to relieve stress. 

“This is something that we found; indeed, people are using media for relaxation. We have to pay attention to how people are using these screen technologies to de-stress and whether this de-stressing might be more beneficial, and this is what our study is showing,” said Khalili-Mahani.

Learn more about the study and Najmeh Khalili-Mahani's findings in the CJAD 800 interview here:

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