Research by the University of Otago showed a rise in indicative male violence along with growing feelings of despondency and helplessness amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Google searches in the United States related to violence against women saw a sharp rise during the Covid-19 pandemic, a study published in The Journal of General Psychology says.
Published earlier this year, "Covid-19, suicide, and femicide: Rapid Research using Google search phrases", also shows a spike in searches related to suicide and suicidal thoughts.
It raises concerns about the wider public health costs of a pandemic that has already claimed more than 3 million lives.
The University of Otago study examines the growing volume of Google search queries related to male violence, despondency and insecurity, linking the terms to American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow's work supposits that if baseline human needs for security are not met, the pathway to "higher needs" or more psychological needs such as love and esteem is disrupted.
Searches for how to be violent and get away with it
Google search queries like “how to control your woman” rose by 67 percent from 2019 to 165 million searches. The phrase “I am going to kill her when she gets home” was searched 178 million times, an increase of 39 percent compared to 2019.
The study, while refraining from linking online behaviour to “actual or experienced violence against specific women”, notes how such search terms underscore notions of possessiveness and “violent coercive control of women” are exacerbated when in forced isolation.
There has also been a concurrent rise in searches that indicate male violence is occurring.
Google searches for "he will kill me" increased by 84 percent in 2020 to 107 million. The phrase “help me, he won’t leave” saw 1.22 billion Google searches post-pandemic, an increase of 95 percent from 2019.
“He beats me up all the time” had 320 million searches, an increase of 36 percent.
“These queries gauge Maslow’s basic and psychological needs strata—care, comfort, safety, security, social belonging and esteem—and signal potential threat, harm and violence,” the research says.
Feelings of hopelessness and behaviours of self-harm
Coupled with the massive rise in queries linked to insecurity, despondency and helplessness, the paper argues the pandemic-driven isolation and loss of jobs contributes to depression and suicidal thoughts and actions.
Search queries implying insecurity such as “I can’t count on anyone” were searched for 131 million times on Google.
“I don’t have anywhere I can stay” was searched for 597 million times while “I don’t know what is going to happen” resulted in 1.15 billion searches, an increase of 45 percent.
Queries insinuating feelings of despondency, depression and helplessness also rose during the pandemic: “I want to die” was Google searched 668 million times, “I don’t want to go on living” 236 million times, and 894 million searches for “my life is over”.
“These indicators ... signal feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability and hopelessness from hundreds of thousands of Americans—all signs of psychological stress and mental unwellness that can result in ideation, suicide attempts and completed suicides,” the research says.
“Can't pay bills” was searched on Google 19.5 million times, a 100 percent rise from 2019. Searches for “lost my job” went up by 68 percent from 2019.
There have been several “individual online browser searches that signal increases in precarity and insecurity related to employment loss and concerns about the stability of meeting basic needs in the near future,” the research said.
Lack of adequate support from family, communities and the government in addition to financial and employment instability have contributed to a scenario in which basic needs are not necessarily met.
Looming mental health pandemic
Google search trends reveal a growing pandemic-induced mental health problem in the US, triggered by forced isolation, loss of employment and financial security, stress over the loss of a loved one and lack of social interaction.
A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that women and younger adults in the US are more likely to report their mental health has been adversely affected by the pandemic. According to the study, nearly seven in 10 women aged 18 to 29 reported a negative impact on their mental health. More than half of young men in the same age group also said their mental health was negatively impacted.
Distress could stem from limited social interactions as well as tensions among families in lockdown and a fear of getting sick, psychiatrist Marcella Rietschel, from the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, told Nature.
The percentage of adults under age 30 with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder rose significantly about five months after the US imposed lockdowns.
Between August 2020 and February 2021, this number went up to 41.5 percent from 36.4 percent, as did the percentage of such people reporting that they needed, but did not receive, mental health counselling, a US government study said this month.
The findings are based on a Household Pulse Survey conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Census Bureau to monitor changes in mental health status and access to care during the pandemic.
The study suggests that the rise in reported anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms correspond with the weekly number of reported Covid-19 cases.