Locked indoors: What we do daily is related to mental health

Ashwini Ashokkumar and James W. Pennebaker, The Pandemic Project and the University of Texas at Austin

Some preliminary results are presented from an online survey of 5,626 American and Canadian respondents from the week of March 19-27, which was a week after the first shelter-in-place guidelines were imposed. Some of the noteworthy findings from the survey include:

  • On average, respondents spent approximately 22 hours in their home or a home of a friend or family member, about 1.5 hours outside, and about 20-30 minutes in commercial establishments such as grocery stores.
  • In the home, people reported spending 5.6 hours watching movies, reading, learning new skills, and other leisure activities; 4.3 hours cooking, eating, cleaning, and house and yard work; 3.9 hours on social media (Facebook, Twitter, email, texting); 3.7 hours on work-related tasks; and almost an hour exercising.
  • Most social media time tended to be devoted to watching, learning, and communicating with others about COVID. In fact, approximately 17 percent of the sample was immersed in COVID-19 topics for at least 7 hours of their day. The more people are exposed to COVID-related information, the more depressed and lonely they felt, and the more alcohol they consumed.
  • Overall, those who are coping the best with the COVID outbreak are people who are exercising at least 30 minutes a day, going outdoors, and talking with at least two friends or family members face to face or virtually.
  • Those who are having the most difficult time coping tend to spend at least 5 hours or more watching television or movies, playing video games, or engaging in social media unrelated to COVID.

Introduction and overview

The Pandemic Project is seeking to track and understand people’s everyday social and psychological states over the course of the COVID-19 crisis. Social scientists have long been interested in disasters such as 9/11, the Columbine and other massacres, the Loma Prieta and other earthquakes, wildfires, assassinations, etc. In virtually all other upheavals, people’s natural reactions have been to get together, talk, hug, and cry. Many disaster victims have reported the power of being with others to share their fears, sadness, anger, and other emotions during and after the events. COVID-19 is unique in requiring people to stay locked in their own homes and to avoid human contact with others.

From a social science perspective, COVID-19 has the elements of a perfect storm. It is a deadly disease with no cure that is difficult to track. It is an invisible virus that is silently and mysteriously transferred from person to person without their knowledge, causing terror around the world. All of us, then, are potential victims and agents of the disease. The only prevention to help the loss of life is to avoid exposure to the virus by avoiding social contact. And social contact is one of the only proven remedies for reducing anxiety and depression. Locking down entire populations changes everything about daily life — including what people do with their time, the ways they interact with their friends and family, how they work and play. This also means that the economy is on the brink of a major downturn, even collapse, causing millions to lose jobs and/or incur huge financial losses.

During the first weeks of the outbreak and quarantine, only about 15 percent of people in our research knew of anyone who had been diagnosed with COVID and about 1 percent knew someone who had died. Nevertheless, COVID-19 was a common topic of most conversations, emails, or social media posts, reflecting the enormous social psychological effects of the crisis..

COVID-19 is an overwhelming social psychological phenomenon. How are people connecting with one another? How will they change in the weeks and months ahead? What coping methods are effective and ineffective? These are the questions that the Pandemic Project seeks to answer. In this first paper, we focus on how people are spending their time in their new lives starting about a week after the first shelter-in-place recommendations/requests/orders were announced. Our findings are based on results of an online sample of 5,626 people, mostly women (80.5%), with a college degree (79.8%), who were employed full time (53%), and who averaged 43 years of age. (For details of the study, click here)

How are people spending their time?

The most striking aspect of the COVID outbreak is that the vast majority of the world population stopped their daily routines and remained in their houses for weeks at a time. Most people outside the health care sector and other essential services either worked from home or were furloughed or laid off from their jobs. Restaurants, bars, and other gathering places were closed. In the few locations where groups of people were allowed (grocery stores, pharmacies, U.S. gun stores, and other essential services), social distancing norms were mandated. Given the new movement restrictions, much of the world’s population had to establish completely new daily routines.

In the survey, we asked participants how and where they had spent their previous 24 hours. Overall, the average person spent approximately 22 hours either at their own residence or the residence of a family member or friend. The remaining two hours were largely spent either outdoors or at grocery stores and supermarkets.

Daily activities

Participants were asked how much time they spent on a range of activities in the 24 hours before taking the survey. The five primary categories of interest included work, daily household routines, leisure activities, social media, and exercising.

As you can see in the first figure, people spent the most time on leisure activities such as reading, playing video games, watching movies or TV or learning new skills, averaging 5.6 hours per day. About 21% of the sample reported spending over 8 hours on leisure activities.

Daily routines such as eating, cooking, chores, and house maintenance was the second most frequent category, taking up 4.2 hours, indicating that people are using their time to organize their homes. This was not true of all people; about 19% of the sample spent less than 2 hours on daily routines.

Figure 1. Average time spent on various activities in the 24 hours before taking the survey

National time-use studies find that the average American usually spends about 2.1 hours each day on social media. In our sample, the number was almost twice that — about 3.9 hours per day. In fact, over 11% of the sample spent more than 8 hours on social media! Previous reports that over 50% of Americans use social media to get their news suggest that the current spike reflects an increase in consumption of news related to COVID.

Interestingly, people were spending only about 3.7 hours working remotely from home. Respondents who were not students and who were employed at the time of completing the survey worked for about 4.8 hours, marking a 33% drop from the average work hours for Americans pre-COVID.

Overall, our respondents spent about 45 minutes each day exercising. About 32% of the sample did not exercise at all. Those who did averaged one hour and 12 minutes exercising.

Depression, loneliness, and alcohol use

Large-scale upheavals, both natural and manmade, are followed by spikes in stress, anxiety, and depression that sometimes last several months after the event. The most powerful antidote to anxiety is social support. People usually cling to their loved ones during times of crisis. Being forced to stay apart presumably exacerbates the mental health problems resulting from the current crisis.

Respondents provided estimates of how long in their previous day they experienced feelings of depression and isolation, and the amount of time they consumed alcohol or other recreational substances. In our sample, about 30.2% reported feeling depressed for over an hour in the previous day, and about 14.8% experienced such feelings for over 3 hours (See Figure 2). The amount of time people felt alone was similar. About 20 percent of respondents reported drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs for 1-3 hours or more in the previous day. The high numbers suggest that COVID may be having a meaningful impact on mental health.

Figure 2. Number of depressed hours in the previous day reported by survey respondents

Exposure to COVID-related information

Being exposed to traumatic images on television, social media, or in print may boost levels of fear, concerns about the future, and poorer coping. Some of the most compelling evidence for the dangers of repeated exposure to disturbing images has been reported by Roxane Silver and her colleagues at the University of California-Irvine. Over her career, she has studied people’s reactions to watching coverage of wildfires, the 9/11 attacks, beheadings, school shootings, and other horrifying events. Time after time, she has demonstrated that the more exposure people have to violent images, the more likely they will show signs of distress — often for weeks or months. Within days of orders for people to self-isolate in North America, Silver warned about the dangers of watching too much media coverage of the Coronavirus. She was right.

Our respondents estimated the time they spent reading about, watching, or communicating information about COVID. As you can see in the graph, over 45% of the sample reported spending at least 3 hours in their previous day dealing with COVID-related information, and about 17% spent 8 hours or more.

Figure 3. Number of hours in the previous day that survey respondents spent dealing with COVID-related information

What are the links between watching, reading, or talking about COVID and mental health?

Is it unhealthy to become immersed in watching and thinking about the COVID crisis? We asked people how worried they were about getting infected by the virus, dying from it, infecting others, and so on. Overall, people who spent more time dealing with COVID-related information reported higher levels of COVID-related worries.

More striking is that exposure to COVID-related information is associated with feelings of depression. Similar patterns are observed for feelings of loneliness and alcohol use.

Figure 4. People who spent more time dealing with COVID related information spent more hours feeling depressed.

Warning: we cannot be sure from our analyses whether dealing with COVID-related information causes depression. Our findings are correlational and do not provide information regarding the cause. It is equally possible that people who are more prone to depressive moods seek out COVID-related information. In fact, some compelling research on depression by Christopher Beevers and his colleagues who are in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin find that people who are depressed often seek out negative and threatening information. Consequently, our findings may be showing that depressed people are driven to find COVID-related information more than others. However, other research suggests that being exposed to frightening and depressing information can make people more afraid and depressed. Can avoiding excessive news coverage of the COVID-19 help improve your mood and reduce symptoms of depression and loneliness? Our research can’t answer that question. However, you can figure out the answer yourself. If you are feeling anxious, afraid, or depressed and you are watching more than 3 hours of COVID news each day, try reducing your intake of COVID information and see if you feel better.

What other activities are related to well-being?

Of all the factors we have studied so far, exposure to COVID-related information is most strongly related to depression and loneliness, and, by extension the lowest levels of well-being. The analyses of our first wave of data collection point to other correlates of well-being worth considering. Recall that we asked people to estimate the number of hours they had spent on a variety of tasks in the 24 hours prior to completing the survey. We then compared how they used their time with a crude measure of well-being (the total number of hours people were free of feelings of depression and loneliness).

Spend a minute and think about the numbers in the table below. The three activities at the top are all associated with low well-being (and higher feelings of depression and loneliness). As a comparison, being immersed in COVID-related news and conversation is correlated about -.23 with well-being. Interestingly, the more time that people engaged in social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), even when this did not involve dealing with COVID-related information, the lower was their well-being. Similarly, lower well-being is correlated with watching a great deal of television and playing video games (i.e., over 5 hours). These effects are not related to people’s age or their gender.

The more satisfying results tell us what kinds of behaviors are associated with greater well-being among our respondents. The three most robust dimensions are going outside, exercising, and talking with friends and family (both face to face and virtually by phone, email, or Zoom or other video).

whitepaper1_table
*A negative correlation indicates a reverse relationship. So, for example, the people who spent more hours on social media tended to have the lowest scores on well-being. Conversely, the more hours that people spent outside, the higher their well-being.

In the coming weeks, we will be releasing reports on more analyses. How do individual differences in gender, age, ethnicity, education level, and political beliefs shape how people are coping with the COVID crisis? What are the psychological impacts on health workers? Is COVID bringing us together or tearing us apart? To receive updates, follow this blog.

Note to researchers: All the analyses presented in this report are preliminary. All effects presented are significant at p < .001 and were replicated in a Prolific sample of ~450 participants.

9 thoughts on “Locked indoors: What we do daily is related to mental health”

  1. Thanks so much for the thoughtful work, the insights, and the results, which provide some interesting correlations with good or poor well being. Wonder why the guys, 20% of the sample, are not responding. Ladies are stronger immunologically and better connectors, maybe there is a link.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. You are totally right that there is some systematic reason why women participate more. We have translated the survey into several languages, and we are seeing the same skew across all datasets. These are not even student datasets, and so the skew is not because of the higher proportion of women in psychology. I suspect you are right about this having something to do with women being better connectors. I wonder if there is research on gender differences in motivations to reflect and make sense of issues.

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