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Social media provide a source of emotional comfort during the pandemic
  The study began by analysing the psychological traits and online behaviour of 516 users of WeChat

The study began by analysing the psychological traits and online behaviour of 516 users of WeChat. (Photo: Bruce Mars / Unsplash)

Agustín López

A UOC study has analysed the psychological traits and changes in present time perspective among users of the Chinese social networking site WeChat during the COVID-19 crisis

People with narcissistic traits, a hedonistic view of life and an optimistic outlook on the future gained more significant emotional gratification from their online engagement

The physical distancing measures put in place due to the pandemic had a major psychological impact on the population and its use of online social media. A study by the UOC's Digital Business Research Group (DigiBiz), in collaboration with researchers from Nanjing University of Science and Technology and Guizhou University (both in China), has analysed the effect of certain psychological traits and changes in present time perspective on the behaviour of users of the social networking site WeChat during the pandemic. The results, published in open access in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, published by Nature, show that users' future time perspective was altered during this period, leading to an improvement in the quality of interactions with other people through social networking sites and instant messaging apps, which became a source of emotional comfort.

According to Inma Rodríguez-Ardura, professor of Digital Marketing at the UOC Faculty of Economics and Business and the director of DigiBiz, who led the study along with Antoni Meseguer-Artola, professor of Quantitative Methods Applied to Economics and Business at the same faculty, "the possibility of falling seriously ill with COVID-19, or even dying, led many people to believe that their future was much more difficult to predict. In turn, this uncertainty made them much more prone to exposing themselves to highly immersive personal experiences on social media and instant messaging apps, opening themselves up to other users of these platforms and disclosing very personal information."


Hedonism and trust in the future

The study began by analysing the psychological traits and online behaviour of 516 users of WeChat, a China-based platform boasting 1.2 billion users that serves as a social networking site, an instant messaging app and a means of payment. Rodríguez-Ardura said that "these psychological aspects have to do with people's possible narcissistic personality traits and with whether they have a present-hedonistic time perspective, and thus try to ensure that their actions provide instant gratification, new sensations and unique experiences, or whether they tend to think about the future consequences of their actions, and thus plan for their future and work hard in the present to achieve their goals down the line."

According to the study, when this hedonistic time perspective is activated, individuals are more willing to engage on social networking sites and enjoy these activities, making them more willing to open up to other people. For Rodríguez-Ardura, "this happens because the use of these platforms can provide the emotional comfort they need when they feel that their life span is shortened, leading them to place greater importance on finding emotional gratification in the present."

Thus, according to the new study, focusing on the 'here and now' and trusting that one's present behaviour will lead to a better future are useful mechanisms for coping with a public emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which involves regulating one's emotions and staying positive, in this case, through online social media.


The role of narcissistic traits

The study also provides insight into the effect of narcissistic traits on social media behaviour, having found a direct causal relationship between this psychological profile and WeChat users' tendency to share their emotional state and other intimate details on the site. This personality trait would therefore help to trigger behaviour that is conducive to supporting one's emotional well-being during a health emergency. 

According to the researchers, these findings can be used to better understand "the role and meaning of narcissistic traits in harsh environments" such as the one brought about in the most severe waves of the pandemic.


The impact of immersive experiences

The study shows that immersive experiences providing emotional comfort have unique features. According to Rodríguez-Ardura, this is because they are able to "make users feel like they are really in the environment or setting created by technology and in the company of other real people."

The researchers believe that this finding can be "very useful" for all public and private organizations wishing to help people cope with the negative effects of the pandemic on their future outlook and social relationships. These online platforms can become an alternative place in which to rebuild social networks and obtain gratification while complying with social distancing measures.

In addition, the authors pointed out that their results may also have implications for companies and commercial establishments aiming to enhance their consumer interaction channels. This could mean adapting the services offered by online social networking sites and immersive technology to users' profile and motivations or organizing specific WeChat groups to encourage users to share their feelings, stories, behaviours, and consumer plans and experiences.


This UOC research supports Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, Good Health and Well-being.


Related article:

Fu, Q.; Rodríguez-Ardura, I.; Meseguer-Artola, A.; Wu, P. “Self-disclosure during the COVID-19 emergency: Effects of narcissism traits, time perspective, virtual presence, and hedonic gratification”. Computers in Human Behavior, 2022, Vol. 130.



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UOC experts

Photograph of Inma Rodríguez-Ardura

Inma Rodríguez-Ardura

Full Professor of Digital Marketing within the Faculty of Economics and Business

Expert in: Digital marketing, e-commerce, online consumer experience, and marketing/e-learning interfaces

Knowledge area: Marketing.

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Photograph of Antoni Meseguer Artola

Antoni Meseguer Artola

Expert in: Quantitative methods applied to economics and business (mathematics, statistics and econometrics); game theory.

Knowledge area: Quantitative methods applied to economics and business.

View file