If you are anything like me, the entire coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and subsequent reactions and closings has come as a total shock! The news began with small stories of a handful of individuals reporting sickness in faraway countries; however, somewhere in between the stream of memes and poor advice on Facebook, I finally saw the news reporting an immediate emergency closing of a neighboring county. It was not long after that I began to receive e-mails from my university and private practice with information on changing our work into an online format. As a professor of research and statistics for healthcare professionals, I realized that the sources where most people are getting their information were potentially misguided, and at times dangerous or anxiety provoking.
The Pew Research Center has issued a number of reports about the high number of individuals who receive their news from social media. Their most recent report shows that 30% of the population are getting their information from social media. The worldwide spread of Facebook, along with prominent politicians’ engagement in Twitter feeds, seems to reinforce this behavior. As a therapist and researcher, reports like these can cause worry. While social media may be great for sharing pictures of your cat dressed up or staying connected with newly formed friends from conventions, sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tik Tok are often terrible ways to receive information, facts, or news.
There are two things to consider when putting out information or news: the speed of delivery and reliability of facts. In our fast-paced world, the media is in a cutthroat competition to be the first to report on changing events in our world, including the spread of the coronavirus. A media source gets rewarded with increased exposure, likes and shares, and citations if they are the first to get the story out, but just like building any max-leveled video game character, quality takes time. The trade-off for fast delivery and increased exposure is a decrease in reliability and factual data. Real information takes time to collect, test, validate, and disperse. Unfortunately, this process results in our news feeds becoming flooded with early, fast, nonfactual data.
Anyone who has played game series like the Legend of Zelda or the Witcher knows it is important to not rush headfirst into dungeons or forests but instead take time to explore the area, search nooks and crannies, and use our senses to collect information. As smart consumers of information, we need to be sure to apply the same level of caution and intelligence to how we collect opinions and make decisions in life. It can be easy and tempting to rush onto social media or other quick sources of information to find answers right away, especially when we are nervous or anxious about something going on in the world. Whenever there is an unknown in our daily life, anxiety will fill that gap, generally with the worst-case scenarios. Sometimes we can get caught up in the search for comfort and run into what psychologists refer to as a confirmation bias: only paying attention to sources that already agree with what we think or want to hear. Most social media news-feeds consist of several reports of totally opposite findings (E.g. “Coronavirus is No Worse Than the Flu” vs. “Coronavirus is A Worldwide Pandemic.”), and we could fall into the trap of only reading the ones which agree with us or make us feel better. When people see articles which agree with them, regardless of facts, and share them, that increases the exposure of unfounded information.
Now let’s take some of this information and come up with a few hand tips and tricks to keep us on the right path as we search out for healthy opinions about the coronavirus, or COVID-19. Here are some steps to take:
- Ask yourself: how quickly was this article published? Does it seem to include many other already published resources, or is it ahead of the curve with large, unsubstantiated claims?
- What website does it come from? What is the ending to the URL? Educational (.edu), governmental (.gov), and organizational (.org) sites are generally stronger sources than commercial websites (.com) which may be looking for increased traffic.
- Who wrote it? Are they a medical professional or someone steeped in the knowledge of the subject, or is this a reporter looking for an engaging headline?
- Avoid clickbait, which generally includes a title that is a question pretending to be a statement. This is enough to make a claim without having to back it up (E.g. “Are PC Gamers Really Superior?!”)
- Find information from organizations who are established institutions responsible for addressing large scale illnesses. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are great resources specifically to learn more about COVID-19 and best practices to stay safe and healthy!
As a final note, let’s talk about the importance of finding good sources to relieve our own anxiety. Many news sources are in the business (literally) of making people feel anxious, as worried people consume more news, which makes them more worried…you see where this is going. It is important to remember that anxiety and preparing are not the same thing. Too much anxiety makes sensible preparation more difficult. I would suggest finding one or two legitimate, trusted sources (in this case, I’m largely looking at the CDC and WHO) in order to take whatever realistic precautions you need to take to feel safer and more secure. Too much overtly distressing news which offers no real solutions will only stress you out further. No one needs unnecessary distress at an already distressing time. Get factual info from trusted sources. Take sensible precautions. Then shut off the news and go play Stardew Valley. This is hard, but we can calmly get through this together.
Drew Lightfoot is a Licensed Professional Counselor working in downtown Philadelphia. He works as a professor of psychology and healthcare research and a private practicing therapist. He spends his free time playing old video games or streaming Dungeons & Dragons sessions with his wife as a part of GamerShrinks.