At first blush, this coronavirus pandemic would seem to be social media's moment. Social distancing has us stuck in our homes, cut off from family and friends, trying to work, parent or — blessed be — both, and most of all trying to keep up with the avalanche of information coming out every day about Covid-19.
Indeed, Facebook use is surging — the company reports that in Italy time spent across its apps (including WhatsApp and Instagram) is up as much as 70% since the outbreak began there. Twitter has seen an increase in activity, too. I alone am probably worth a few percentage points of that uptick, given how often lately I've stared into the blue glow of my iPhone.
This is not a positive development. User sentiment on these platforms has become overwhelmingly negative since the virus hit, according to marketing companies that track such things: Feelings of fear and disgust are rising along with the number of posts. Pre-pandemic studies conducted on heavy Facebook use consistently show that it increases rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness. That's the last thing we need during a deadly disease outbreak, when we're confined to our homes, grieving for lost normalcy and feeling anticipatory grief over future lost lives.
Even if all the information circulating on social media could be trusted — which of course, it can't - now is not the time to continually seek new information.
In many situations, accumulating facts can alleviate anxiety, since nothing is more fearful than the unknown. "People are not very good at coping with uncertainty," says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, in what feels like a bit of an understatement. In normal circumstances, rationally collecting facts can be a healthy way to cope. But that's not the case here.
Getting more information "is helpful when it influences what you would do," says Alice Boyes, author of "The Anxiety Toolkit." "But at the moment, most of us are doing all the things we can possibly do." We're hunkered down, washing our hands, staying six feet away from others.
"When you're already doing all you can do," she says, "there's not much additional benefit" in seeking more information.
Moreover, humans are naturally inclined to pay attention to bad news, says Chamorro-Premuzic. And a lot of the news right now is bad. We may be spending more time online out of a sense of desperation or helplessness, or even just because many of us have more time on our hands. But if we're mainlining bad news, we could be escalating our own anger and fear.
There are times when that's useful. Experts call it "upregulating," says Boyes — amping up our negative emotions to help us summon the energy to act. Studies have found that amping up your anger can sometimes help you find courage, for example, and amping up fear can help you fight or flee. But it's helpful only to a point. We may be doing more harm than good now — sowing panic in others as well as ourselves.
Emotions can be contagious in real life, says Boyes, as well as online, because social media algorithms amplify the most intense posts so that we all get exposed. As social feeds have turned into a seething ocean of anxiety, fear and anger, there's a risk of escalating and spreading these feelings via retweets and likes.
Anger is, of course, one of the stages of grief. It's normal to be angry that shoddy leadership has left us unprepared for this pandemic; that certain senators seemed more interested in preserving their personal wealth than in acting to protect the public; that delay and disorganization will put lives at risk. But anger is best channeled toward some productive purpose, whether it's calling members of Congress or rage-sewing DIY masks.
Another reason social media may be so appealing in these alarming times is that using it doesn't take much mental discipline. When I suggested to Boyes that maybe a better use of time could be reading a book, she (politely) shot down the idea: For most of us, it's just too hard to concentrate right now.
Nevertheless, we can practice what one uncle of mine called "social media distancing" — it's OK to check Facebook, but once or twice a day. It's OK to check Twitter, but not after 9 p.m. You can quarantine your social media to prevent it from infecting your whole day.
"Let's not forget that these media were addictive in the first place - they were designed to be addictive," Chamorro-Premuzic warns. He suggests it might be easier to avoid Facebook and Twitter if you intentionally replace them with something else. "Pick an activity that is somewhat distracting, somewhat rewarding and somewhat useful," he suggests.
As for me, rather than refresh Twitter, I'm going use my phone the old-fashioned way: to call a friend.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron's, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.