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People who watched nature videos on social media experienced boosts to their overall mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 lockdowns, according to new research.

Researchers used the first UK lockdown in March 2020 to investigate how people engaged with nature via social media and whether there were associations between this form of simulated nature engagement and wellbeing.

They analysed a total of 143,265 publicly available comments in response to videos on two Facebook pages – Chris Packham’s live-stream videos and clips from BBC Springwatch – posted from March to July 2020.

This video content was some of the earliest in the UK to proactively support public engagement with the natural world at a time where COVID-19 regulations dramatically limited access to outside spaces for the general population.

Through their analysis, researchers found watching nature videos had elicited positive emotions such as feeling calm, relaxed, joyful, moved, uplifted and inspired. People also reported that engaging virtually had helped them cope with, and process, the stress and mental fatigue they were experiencing as a result of the pandemic.

It had also helped to give them a sense of meaning, afforded viewers the opportunity to express negative emotions and, in turn, may have helped to combat loneliness and feelings of isolation.

The study, published by the journal Frontiers in Psychology | Environmental Psychology, was conducted by the University of Surrey, University of Plymouth, and Natural England.

Dr Shi (Tracy) Xu, lead author and Senior Lecturer at the University of Surrey’s School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, said:

“This is an important piece of research that gives us an insight into the impact of the pandemic and associated lockdowns on mental wellbeing. We know that poor mental wellbeing is a major issue for many people and has a significant impact on public health services.
"This study has deepened the understanding of the link between engaging with nature virtually via social media and wellbeing, and our analysis suggests that these experiences may be related to wellbeing on a broader level.”

Researchers at the University of Plymouth have previously demonstrated that being in and around nature can have a wide variety of health benefits.

This has included showing that visiting the coast and high quality natural environments like nature reserves is associated with greater wellbeing benefits and that being able to see green spaces from your home can reduce cravings, but also that these benefits depend on how we engage with the natural world.

Dr Kayleigh Wyles, Associate Professor in Environmental Psychology at the University of Plymouth and an author of the current study, said:

“The COVID-19 related restrictions posed numerous challenges to people’s mental health and wellbeing. That included introducing new stressors such as home-schooling and not being able to work, to preventing people doing things that normally help with their mood such as going to the gym, seeing family or friends, or travelling to the coast for a day at the beach.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that nature can be a much needed respite, providing many wellbeing benefits. However, the restrictions similarly impacted what types of nature we could engage with and how, only allowing one hour of outside exercise per day if people were not socially isolating. This study shows that even engaging with nature via a short video on social media (an inclusive virtual form of nature) can offer benefits.”

  • The full study – #Springwatch #WildMorningswithChris: Engaging With Nature via Social Media and Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Lockdown by Xu et al – is published in Frontiers in Psychology | Environmental Psychology, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.701769.

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