People who become anxious due to being overexposed to COVID-19 news, could end up inappropriately presenting to Emergency Departments (EDs) or GPs and demanding to be tested for the virus, new Irish research has found.
This could end up placing more strain on an already over-extended healthcare system, the researchers said.
The dissemination of factual and timely information is essential during times like this and social media has a key role to play, noted the researchers from Children's Health Ireland, Crumlin, the Lucena Clinic, and the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UCD.
"Reputable organisations, such as government bodies and large agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), have not only established a presence on social media, but rely on it as an integral part of their communication strategy.
"Irish organisations, such as the HSE and the Department of Heath, have also maintained prominent positions on popular social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, providing clear and factual information to the public," the researchers said.
However, they pointed out that while providing details about the many risks associated with the virus is appropriate, "excessive disease-related information is likely to cause increased levels of stress, anxiety and worry".
While the WHO recommends minimising exposure to COVID-19, "this conflicts with the typical pattern of social media use, whereby newsfeeds are updated continuously on a real time basis".
"The health anxiety precipitated by media over-exposure can cause unnecessary distress and can result in help-seeking behaviour, which may be disproportionate to actual need.
"This can take the form of inappropriate presentations to EDs or GPs and demands for COVID-19 testing. This places strain on an already over-extended healthcare system," the researchers said.
As well as the potential harm that excessive over-exposure can cause, the pandemic has also led to "considerable amounts" of false information being circulated on social media. This can make it difficult for people to know what is trustworthy and what is not.
The researchers added that false information "tends to proliferate in the absence of updates from official channels", highlighting the importance of "substantive updates at regular intervals from trusted sources".
This research is published in the Irish Medical Journal.
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