Quick: What’s your go-to source of information about the coronavirus?
If the answer is “YouTube,” you may well want to check out some other venues.
A new study coauthored by Charles Basch, Teachers College’s Richard March Hoe Professor of Health & Education, has found that fewer than one-third of the 100 most widely-viewed YouTube videos on COVID-19 cover any of the key prevention behaviors listed on the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[Read the new report, “Preventive Behaviors Conveyed on YouTube to Mitigate Transmission of COVID-19: Cross-Sectional Study.” The paper’s lead author is TC alumna Corey H. Basch (M.A. ’09, M.A. ’06, Ed.D. ’03, M.S. ’01), Professor and Chair of Public Health at William Paterson University. Together, Charles and Corey Basch, who are husband and wife, have conducted significant research on the internet as a source of medical information for the general public. The paper’s other authors are TC alumna Grace C. Hillyer (Ed.D.’11), Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center; and three other William Paterson faculty members, Zoe Meleo-Erwin, Christie Jaime and Jan Mohlman.]
With more than 2 billion people using YouTube, and with the videos in the study sample having received 125 million views as of January 31, 2020 (the number had increased by 30 percent as of mid-March), the findings reveal “an important missed opportunity for disease prevention,” asserts the report, published in a special issue of JMIR Public Health & Surveillance.
“The majority of the 100 videos mentioned number of deaths or estimated mortality rates, or suggested fear and anxiety, and these videos were collectively viewed over 100 million times,” the authors write. “Communications that increase fear and anxiety may prompt preventive actions, but may also lead to maladaptive, socially irresponsible behaviors such as hoarding medical supplies, hygienic supplies, and food items and making unnecessary visits to physicians and emergency rooms.”
Of equal concern in a crisis in which the state of knowledge is constantly changing, many of the videos are already out of date.
Communications that increase fear and anxiety may prompt preventive actions, but may also lead to maladaptive, socially irresponsible behaviors such as hoarding medical supplies, hygienic supplies, and food items and making unnecessary visits to physicians and emergency rooms.
In theory, note Basch et al, YouTube videos should be a medium for educating people about preventive strategies that include proper hand hygiene, properly covering one’s coughs, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, and practicing social distancing. But, they write, “accurate information must be conveyed by designated spokespersons who can promote primary and secondary prevention behaviors, model rational thinking, and allay unrealistic or excessive fears about the future,” and the majority of “the most widely viewed YouTube videos on COVID-19 do not achieve these aims.”
The authors conclude that “it is clear that consumers must also become critical evaluators of disseminated information about COVID-19 found on YouTube,” and argue that “YouTube could benefit from clearly demarcating the most current, valid information. This would be especially useful in instances such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where information is changing rapidly.”
— Joe Levine