Canada

'Hey, Google, how do I deal with stress?' Web searches during COVID-19 reveal Canadians' anxieties

A year ago, Canadians were wondering how long it takes to get to the moon, how to cook rice and how to make granola at home. These days, they’re more worried about getting government aid and making their own hand sanitizer.

Baking recipes and homemade hand sanitizer are popular searches, but so are conspiracy theories

Canadians are dealing with unprecedented amounts of anxiety around the pandemic, according to several surveys and the popularity of certain Google searches. (Shutterstock)

A year ago, curious Canadians would ask Google how long it takes to get to the moon, how to cook rice and how to make granola at home. These days, they're more worried about getting government aid, making their own hand sanitizer and who is really behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

Using Google Trends, CBC News compared the most popular web searches in Canada between March 1 and April 15 of this year and last. The results reveal widespread anxiety over financial security, staying safe and finding things to do while shut indoors.

And they foreshadow what could become a mental health crisis in this country.

"It's normal for crises and disasters to cause a lot of anxiety. This is a new level of scope in terms of disaster," said Jordan Friesen, national director of workplace mental health for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

The tables below show the top Google searches related to selected phrases like "how to make" in the same seven-week period this year and last.

What Canadians are searching for most, then and now

Top related queries to different keywords between March 1 and April 15, 2019 and 2020, in order of popularity

how long does it take to ____

how to ____

how to make ____

what does ____ mean

the truth about ____

conspiracy


The surge in applications for employment insurance reflects what was found in other surveys. Morneau Shepell, a Toronto-based employee benefits provider, this month launched a mental health index that compares current indicators of mental well-being with data collected in 2017, 2018 and 2019, characterized as "a period of relative social stability and steady economic growth."

That index dropped 12 points from the baseline of 75, due mostly to increased anxiety over finances and the possible death of a loved one.

A recent survey from Statistics Canada showed that a majority of Canadians are "very" or "extremely" anxious about aspects of the pandemic like the health of a household member; one-third reported similar feelings for their own health and family stress.

Google searches for topics related to anxiety reached an all-time high in March, as physical distancing policies were rolled out. Searches with the word "bored" also peaked at the same time, as Canadians looked for ideas on what to do with unprecedented idle time.

The chart below shows the relative popularity of selected search terms on Google since March 1, 2019.

(Roberto Rocha)

Searches for 5G, the new generation of mobile network technology, spiked from a niche interest a year ago to high popularity in the first week of April as an unfounded conspiracy theory linking radio waves to the novel coronavirus circulated widely.

There are also more Google searches for conspiracy theories than a year ago, as the tables above showed. This suggests uncertainty around the pandemic and a thirst for definitive answers.

"This situation is so out of the ordinary, people don't have any sense of control of it," said Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research, analytics and innovation for Morneau Shepell.

"You almost want to say that there must be a logical cause for this and must be more than what we're hearing. People are seeking answers, it gives us the feeling that we understand it better."

Friesen believes there is another source of anxiety, and it's harder to measure: the loss of social connections and the  support they bring.

"This is a fundamental part of mental resilience," he said. "With physical distancing guidelines, this limits our ability to lean on these networks."

Using the time to learn new skills

A silver lining of self-isolation is that Canadians are using the time to learn new activities. Searches for language courses, music instructions and baking are at an all-time high. A newfound interest in bread-making has caused shortages of flour in many cities, and even a shortage of the familiar yellow packaging for flour.

"The ability to learn new skills is something that supports mental health. This is a positive thing," Friesen said.

He urges Canadians to note how they're adapting to this new reality and preserve the positive things as restrictions are lifted and life returns to normal. He has noticed, for instance, an increase in empathy from employers, who have shown flexibility with work-from-home arrangements, and from Canadians in general toward those less fortunate.

"There's the sense that others have harder challenges and we're approaching them with more compassion." he said. "No one wants a pandemic [in order] to create those positive things, but let's try to keep what we learned in this moment."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Roberto Rocha

Journalist

Roberto Rocha is a data journalist with CBC/Radio-Canada.

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