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Memes about COVID-19 helped us cope with life in a pandemic, a new study finds

Artist Jonas Never (@never1959) applies finishing touches to his mural of Sen. Bernie Sanders in Culver City, Calif., on Jan. 24. Standing out in a crowd of glamorously dressed guests, Sanders showed up for the presidential inauguration in a heavy winter jacket and patterned mittens — with an AFP photo of the veteran leftist spawning the first viral meme of the Biden era.
Artist Jonas Never (@never1959) applies finishing touches to his mural of Sen. Bernie Sanders in Culver City, Calif., on Jan. 24. Standing out in a crowd of glamorously dressed guests, Sanders showed up for the presidential inauguration in a heavy winter jacket and patterned mittens — with an AFP photo of the veteran leftist spawning the first viral meme of the Biden era.

Does a meme a day keep the doctor away? Not quite, but it looks like it might help, according to one recent study.

Researchers with Pennsylvania State University and the University of California Santa Barbara found that memes helped people cope with life during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published this week in the Psychology of Popular Media journal. Researchers found that those who viewed memes — a type of humor they described as funny or cute pictures that reference pop culture — reported "higher levels of humor" and more positive feelings, according to a news release from the American Psychological Association, which publishes the journal.

They surveyed 748 people online last December: 72% of those who responded were white, 54% identified as women, 63% didn't hold a college degree, and their ages ranged from 18 to 88, the release states. They were shown a variety of meme types, with different kinds of photos and captions, and asked to rate the cuteness, humor and emotional responses prompted by the materials, as well as how much the memes in question made them think about COVID-19.

Those who viewed memes that specifically referenced the pandemic felt less stress than those who viewed non-pandemic-related memes. They also felt more capable of coping with the COVID-19 crisis and were better at processing information, according to the study. And they were also less likely to be stressed about the pandemic than those who didn't view memes related to COVID-19 at all, researchers concluded.

The type of meme matters, too: People who viewed memes featuring cute babies or baby animals were overall less likely to think about the pandemic or the effects it has had on them, regardless of the type of caption, according to this week's release. (And researchers also found that those who were surveyed found that memes with animals in them were cuter than those featuring humans, the APA said.)

The results of the study show that memes about stressful situations can potentially help the public deal with and process those situations, researchers said.

"While the World Health Organization recommended that people avoid too much COVID-related media for the benefit of their mental health, our research reveals that memes about COVID-19 could help people feel more confident in their ability to deal with the pandemic," Jessica Gall Myrick, a lead author of the study and a professor at Pennsylvania State University, said in the APA release. "This suggests that not all media are uniformly bad for mental health and people should stop and take stock of what type of media they are consuming. If we are all more conscious of how our behaviors, including time spent scrolling, affect our emotional states, then we will better be able to use social media to help us when we need it and to take a break from it when we need that instead."

So the next time you worry that you're wasting time scrolling through memes, just think: It could be good for your health.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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