New research published in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being sheds light on how personality, social media exposure, and anxiety interact to influence people’s eating behavior during the pandemic. The findings point to a pathway whereby high neuroticism paves the way for greater anxiety in response to social media exposure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in turn, increased emotional overeating.
The premise for the study came from evidence suggesting that the pandemic has coincided with changes in people’s eating behavior. This link may be unsurprising, since anxiety has increased worldwide during the pandemic, and negative emotions like anxiety can trigger emotional eating. Emotional eating is defined as eating in response to emotions rather than hunger.
Study authors Yuan Gao and team suggest that social media may play an important role in this equation since exposure to social media has been associated with increased anxiety during the pandemic. They further suggested a role for personality, since not everyone responds to stress in the same fashion. For example, people high in neuroticism respond more intensely to stress and are particularly likely to turn to emotional eating as a coping mechanism.
To explore these ideas, the researchers analyzed data from a large Chinese study investigating people’s eating behavior, sleeping habits, physical activity, and emotions. Three weeks into strict lockdown, between February 17 and 27, 2020, over 1,000 participants from 32 Chinese provinces responded to online questionnaires.
Participants were asked how many hours they spend per day on social media reading information related to COVID-19. They also indicated the degree that they have felt certain negative emotions since the start of the pandemic (e.g., depressed, irritable, anxious). Participants next responded to measures of emotional overeating and undereating and answered several questions assessing their desire for certain high-calorie foods. Finally, they completed the Neuroticism subscale of the Big Five Personality Questionnaire.
Alarmingly, 46% of respondents said they spent more than 6 hours per day on social media reading about COVID-19, and another 27% spent between 4–6 hours per day. More than half (57%) of the participants said they have felt either moderately or severely anxious since the start of the pandemic.
Participants’ eating behaviors also appeared to be markedly affected by the pandemic. While 26% said they never engage in emotional overeating in response to negative emotions, 48% said they engage in emotional overeating usually, often, or constantly. The study’s authors point out that this number is higher than previously reported rates of emotional overeating, which are around 30%. What’s more, respondents’ cravings for high-calorie foods seemed to go up during the pandemic. While around 12% of the sample said they craved high-calorie foods before the lockdown, 25% said they craved these foods after the lockdown.
As expected, both anxiety and exposure to social media were positive predictors of emotional overeating. “The more time people spend reading COVID-19 news and information on social media platforms, the more often they engage in emotional overeating,” Gao and team report. Social media exposure was also indirectly linked to emotional overeating through increased anxiety.
Next, neuroticism moderated the relationship between social media exposure and anxiety. In other words, social media exposure was associated with increased anxiety among patients high in neuroticism, but not among patients low in neuroticism. This finding is an example of how different personalities respond differently to social media content. It appears that people who are high in neuroticism were especially susceptible to the negative impact of such exposure, which falls in line with research showing that people high in neuroticism respond more intensely to stressful events.
The study authors conclude that the pandemic has had an impact on the eating behavior and anxiety levels of citizens and that the extent of this impact increases with the amount of time spent on social media and the personality factor of neuroticism. They advise that messaging that incorporates healthy nutrition and awareness of eating disorder symptoms should be shared on social media to encourage adaptive coping during this isolating time.
The study, “Social media exposure during COVID-19 lockdowns could lead to emotional overeating via anxiety: The moderating role of neuroticism”, was authored by Yuan Gao, Hua Ao, Xiaoyong Hu, Xinyu Wang, Duo Huang, Wanjun Huang, Yan Han, Chao Zhou, Ling He, Xu Lei, and Xiao Gao.