Message Fatigue

Colby Cox, co-founder of Roadhouse Brewing Co., delivers KN95 masks to the Jackson Hole Fire/EMS administration building in early April. Mask wearing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shifted, creating a mixed message that University of Utah professor Jakob Jensen said could be a cause of what’s known as “message fatigue.”

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People are wearying of the deluge of COVID-19 information and finding some relief, experts say, could involve something as simple as taking a break.

“People need to unplug and maybe limit the information they’re looking for,” said Deidre Ashley, executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center.

Jakob Jensen, a University of Utah professor, has been studying how people have responded around the nation to information about the coronavirus. Seven weeks into his study, in which his team surveys 400 people nationwide on a weekly basis, Jensen said it appears the public is experiencing “message fatigue.”

In a nutshell, that means people are tired of hearing similar messages, day in and day out. And the rate at which people are experiencing that fatigue is also particularly high.

Jakob Jensen

Jakob Jensen

“Normally, message fatigue is around 10% to 15%,” Jensen said. “To see message fatigue as high as 50% in the national surveys — it’s pretty high for something that is not a day-to-day occurrence.”

There’s any number of reasons people might be worn out. One might be information overload.

“As consumers in the 21st century, we get messages from our local area, but then we also get a smattering of messages from around the world,” Jensen said. “Even if locally your messaging is on point, you’re drinking from a very large well.”

It doesn’t help that some messages have been contradictory.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, initially did not recommend that people wear masks in public. But the advice changed. While the CDC still recommends against buying medical-grade masks (so as to preserve them for frontline hospital workers), the nation’s top medical agency now recommends that people wear face coverings in public.

Jensen said back and forths like that can wear people down.

Message Fatigue

University of Utah researcher Jakob Jensen’s study of how people perceive messaging about COVID-19 shows that people are experiencing “message fatigue.” His study was designed to determine whether people feel exhausted by the amount of information, and whether they feel messaging is repetitive or exaggerated.

“That one was difficult for sure,” Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond said, acknowledging that mask advice was mixed. The conclusion now, she added, is that people should wear masks in spaces where they can’t maintain 6 feet of distance.

The reason for the flip-flop, Pond said, is in part that information is changing constantly.

“We’re learning new things, even by the hour,” Pond said.

Jensen said conflicting messages — and messaging fatigue in general — can hurt mental health.

“We see stress being strongly linked to a lot of these negative perceptions about messages,” he said. “And I think it’s a two-way street. More stress equals more message fatigue. More message fatigue equals more stress.”

To fight that, Jensen and Ashley said, people should be aware of just how much information they’re letting into their lives. Being intentional with the media you consume, digital or otherwise, is something Ashley recommends, whether the community is dealing with COVID or not.

Deidre Ashley

Deidre Ashley

“It’s just a condition of our world … with everything accessible and at your fingertips,” Ashley said. “And right now it’s even more of a firehose.”

One way to be intentional is to choose and focus on a trusted, local source of information.

In Teton County health officials have been promoting JHCOVID.com as that resource since the beginning of the outbreak. Pond described it as “one place, linked to other trusted sources” like the CDC, the Wyoming Department of Health and Teton County’s own virus dashboard.

But if the information deluge is still coming — as it likely will — Ashley and Jensen said selectively tuning out is something people should consider.

“If someone is feeling fatigued and they’re feeling like it’s repetitive and they’re feeling overloaded, take a break,” Jensen said. “That’s kind of old advice. But I think it’s good advice.”

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

Teton County Reporter

Previously the Scene editor, Billy Arnold made the switch to the county beat where he's interested in exploring Teton County as a model for the rest of the West. When he can, he still writes about art, music and whatever else suits his fancy.

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