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A daily diary study into the effects on mental health of COVID-19 pandemic-related behaviors

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 July 2021

Philip Shaw*
Neurobehavioral Clinical Research Section, Social and Behavioral Research Branch, National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD, USA National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD, USA
Sam Blizzard
Neurobehavioral Clinical Research Section, Social and Behavioral Research Branch, National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD, USA
Gauri Shastri
Neurobehavioral Clinical Research Section, Social and Behavioral Research Branch, National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD, USA
Paul Kundzicz
National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD, USA
Brenda Curtis
Translational Addiction Medicine Branch, Technology and Translational Research Unit, National Institute of Drug Abuse, Baltimore, MD, USA
Lyle Ungar
Computer and Information Science, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Laura Koehly
Social Network Methods Section, Social and Behavioral Research Branch, National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD, USA
Author for correspondence: Philip Shaw, E-mail:



Recommendations for promoting mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic include maintaining social contact, through virtual rather than physical contact, moderating substance/alcohol use, and limiting news and media exposure. We seek to understand if these pandemic-related behaviors impact subsequent mental health.


Daily online survey data were collected on adults during May/June 2020. Measures were of daily physical and virtual (online) contact with others; substance and media use; and indices of psychological striving, struggling and COVID-related worry. Using random-intercept cross-lagged panel analysis, dynamic within-person cross-lagged effects were separated from more static individual differences.


In total, 1148 participants completed daily surveys [657 (57.2%) females, 484 (42.1%) males; mean age 40.6 (s.d. 12.4) years]. Daily increases in news consumed increased COVID-related worrying the next day [cross-lagged estimate = 0.034 (95% CI 0.018–0.049), FDR-adjusted p = 0.00005] and vice versa [0.03 (0.012–0.048), FDR-adjusted p = 0.0017]. Increased media consumption also exacerbated subsequent psychological struggling [0.064 (0.03–0.098), FDR-adjusted p = 0.0005]. There were no significant cross-lagged effects of daily changes in social distancing or virtual contact on later mental health.


We delineate a cycle wherein a daily increase in media consumption results in a subsequent increase in COVID-related worries, which in turn increases daily media consumption. Moreover, the adverse impact of news extended to broader measures of psychological struggling. A similar dynamic did not unfold between the daily amount of physical or virtual contact and subsequent mental health. Findings are consistent with current recommendations to moderate news and media consumption in order to promote mental health.

Original Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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