A team of researchers from Singapore recently examined the pattern of WhatsApp use related to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in a group of people. The study shows that almost all participants use WhatsApp to receive or send COVID-related content. Participants who are more actively involved in reading COVID-related content are more likely to think about the pandemic throughout the day. The study by researchers from Yale-NUS College and the National University of Singapore is currently available on the medRxiv * preprint server.
To reduce the spread of misleading information related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the social messaging platform WhatsApp revised its rules and regulations on message forwarding in April 2020. According to a new rule, a person can only forward content to a recipient if the content has already been forwarded by five users.
Studies have shown that the tendency for people to seek or share information in times of crisis such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and epidemic situations increases sharply. In general, to get maximum information, people look to various sources, especially social media platforms. Such a rapid exchange of information can, however, greatly increase the likelihood of misleading circumstances arising, which could have harmful consequences.
Current study design
The scientists wanted to decipher the daily WhatsApp usage pattern of 151 participants during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was carried out for a week. During this time, participants were contacted daily to collect information on the frequency of receiving, sharing and discussing pandemic-related content on WhatsApp. The scientists also categorized the participants based on their pandemic-related behavior patterns on WhatsApp. Interestingly, they also looked at whether the pattern of WhatsApp usage can affect a person’s well-being during the COVID-19 crisis period.
First, the participants were characterized using a basic questionnaire in which information was collected about the demographics of the participants, concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and the emotional state (fear, fear). Next, an experience sampling method was used to record WhatsApp usage patterns and assess participants’ well-being. Finally, participants were asked about the sources from which they collect pandemic-related information and the primary time of day they mainly use to read and share pandemic-related information.
Scheme of the course of studies. All participants completed a basic questionnaire, followed by a 7-day random sample in which participants answered questions about their well-being and WhatsApp usage on a daily basis. The participants completed a final questionnaire one day after the end of the sampling protocol.
The study found WhatsApp is the second most common source of COVID-19-related information. About 95% of participants said they used WhatsApp at least once for COVID-19-related information. In particular, around 52%, 78% and 66% of the participants stated that they had sent, received and discussed at least one COVID-19-related information during the study period. About 88% of the participants stated that they were present in WhatsApp groups in which the exchange of pandemic information takes place.
Sources of COVID-19 News. In a questionnaire, the participants themselves stated where they had received COVID-19 messages from.
Regarding the characteristic WhatsApp usage behavior, around 14% of the participants were classified as chronic WhatsApp users who are heavily involved in receiving, sending and discussing COVID-19 content on the platform. Similarly, around 24% of the participants were classified as minimal users with little WhatsApp usage. In addition, 31% of participants were recipients of forwarded messages who were also actively involved in group conversations. 30% of the participants were mainly involved in face-to-face and group discussions.
Regarding COVID-19-related concerns and emotional distress, the study found that chronic users are either extremely concerned about the pandemic or moderately concerned and have less confidence in government strategies. Similarly, it was found that discursive participants (participants who were heavily involved in conversations) were either extremely fearful or moderately concerned but had great confidence in the government’s plans. The rest of the participants showed moderate levels of COVID-19-related anxiety.
In terms of personal well-being, the study found that participants who are actively involved in reading COVID-19-related information in their personal chats are more likely to think about the pandemic throughout the day. It is known that this type of behavior is associated with clinical depression. Thinking about COVID-19 for a long time can therefore have a negative impact on a person’s well-being. Subscribers who receive mostly forwarded messages are particularly vulnerable to misleading information because forwarded messages are more likely to contain misinformation than user-generated messages.
Overall, the study results provide a basic understanding of how the WhatsApp usage pattern can affect a person’s perspective in crisis situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. The results have an impact on crisis management strategies.
* Important NOTE
medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be considered conclusive, guide clinical practice / health-related behavior, or treated as established information.