Physical Distancing and Social Media Use in Emerging Adults and Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Large-scale Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Survey Study

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Although emerging adults play a role in the spread of COVID-19, they are less likely to develop severe symptoms after infection. Emerging adults’ relatively high use of social media as a source of information raises concerns regarding COVID-19–related behavioral compliance (ie, physical distancing) in this age group. This study aimed to investigate physical distancing among emerging adults in comparison with adults and examine the role of using social media for COVID-19 news and information in this regard. In addition, this study explored the relationship between physical distancing and using different social media platforms and sources. The secondary data of a large-scale longitudinal national survey (N=123,848) between April and November 2020 were used. Participants indicated, ranging from 1 to 8 waves, how often they were successful in keeping a 1.5-m distance on a 7-point Likert scale. Participants aged between 18 and 24 years were considered emerging adults, and those aged >24 years were considered adults. In addition, a dummy variable was created to indicate per wave whether participants used social media for COVID-19 news and information. A subset of participants received follow-up questions to determine which platforms they used and what sources of news and information they had seen on social media. All preregistered hypotheses were tested with linear mixed-effects models and random intercept cross-lagged panel models. Emerging adults reported fewer physical distancing behaviors than adults (β=−.08, t86,213.83=−26.79; P<.001). Moreover, emerging adults were more likely to use social media for COVID-19 news and information (b=2.48; odds ratio 11.93 [95% CI=9.72-14.65]; SE 0.11; Wald=23.66; P<.001), which mediated the association with physical distancing but only to a small extent (indirect effect; b=−0.03, 95% CI −0.04 to −0.02). Contrary to our hypothesis, the longitudinal random intercept cross-lagged panel model showed no evidence that physical distancing was not influenced by social media use in the previous wave. However, evidence indicated that social media use affects subsequent physical distancing behavior. Moreover, additional analyses showed that the use of most social media platforms (ie, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram) and interpersonal communication were negatively associated with physical distancing, whereas other platforms (ie, LinkedIn and Twitter) and government messages had no or small positive associations with physical distancing. In conclusion, we should be vigilant with regard to the physical distancing of emerging adults, but the study results did not indicate concerns regarding the role of social media for COVID-19 news and information. However, as the use of some social media platforms and sources showed negative associations with physical distancing, future studies should more carefully examine these factors to better understand the associations between social media use for news and information and behavioral interventions in times of crisis.