70.4% of the participants were female (N = 4387), 28.8% male (N = 1793) and 0.9% reported to identify as diverse (N = 53). Mean age was 36.45 years (SD = 11.61, range 18–99). 17.2% of the sample had a secondary school degree or lower (N = 1072), 32.3% had a higher education entrance qualification (N = 2014) and 50.5% a university degree (N = 3147). 1052 participants reported to work in a medical context (16.9%). 664 participants suffered from a severe physical illness (10.7%). 18.0% of the sample reported having pronounced fears of physical diseases prior to the pandemic (N = 1124).
1667 participants knew someone diagnosed with COVID-19 (26.7%) and 1729 already suspected themselves to be infected (27.7%). 7.1% were currently under quarantine and 4.4% had been tested for COVID-19. Only 0.8% were diagnosed with COVID-19 (N = 50).
Types of media
The majority of the participants reported to use primarily three different types of media formats to inform themselves about COVID-19 (32.1%; N = 1995). 25.1% reported two different types (N = 1563) and 20.6% used four different formats (N = 1286). 577 Participants stated to consume five types of media (9.3%) and 247 participants used six different types (4.0%;). In contrast, 9.1% of the sample reported to primarily use only one type of media to obtain information regarding the pandemic (N = 565).
The most frequently used media format were official websites of the government or health authorities: 79.7% of the sample reported to use primarily such websites to get information about COVID-19 (N = 4967; see Fig. 2). The second most common format were online news portals (76.9%; N = 4792), followed by television, social media, radio, and newspapers. The percentage distribution is illustrated by Fig. 2.
Duration and frequency
The reported daily average of media usage to get information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic was 2.40 h (SD = 2.01; range 0–24) and the Median was 2 h. The lowest 25% of the sample reported a usage of 1 h or less to obtain information about COVID-19 and the highest 25% reported 3 h or more. The mean frequency of media consumption was 7.23 times per day (SD = 28.76; range 0–999). The lowest 25% of the participants reported to check media 2 times per day or less and the highest 25% reported 6 or more times while the Median was 4.
Duration and frequency of media usage and symptoms of anxiety and depression
The daily average time of media consumption was significantly positively correlated with anxiety symptoms regarding COVID-19, measured with the modified Specific-Phobia-Scale (r = 0.25 p < 0.001). The more time media was used to get information about COVID-19, the higher the anxiety symptoms were on average. The duration of media usage was as well significant positively correlated with the PHQ-4 total score (r = 0.21; p < 0.001) and both subscales (anxiety subscale GAD-2: r = 0.20; p < 0.001; depression subscale PHQ-2: r = 0.19; p < 0.001).
The frequency of media usage was also significantly positively correlated with specific COVID-19 related fear (Phobia-Scale: r = 0.10; p < 0.001) and unspecific anxiety and depressive symptoms (PHQ-4: r = 0.09; p < 0.001; PHQ-2: r = 0.07; p < 0.001; GAD-2: r = 0.09; p < 0.001). Those associations of duration and frequency with the severity of specific and unspecific anxiety and depressive symptoms can also be seen in the descriptive examination of the means (see Fig. 3).
The more different types of media were used, the higher were the symptoms of specific fear, unspecific anxiety and depression (Phobia-Scale: r = 0.25; p < 0.001; PHQ-4: r = 0.32; p < 0.001; PHQ-2: r = 0.26; p < 0.001; GAD-2: r = 0.34; p < 0.001).
Types of media and symptoms of anxiety and depression
Participants who reported the usage of official websites of the government or health authorities as a primary source of information showed significantly less unspecific anxiety and depression than participants who did not use primarily such websites (PHQ-4: M = 4.08, SD = 3.12 vs. M = 4.42, SD = 3.40; F(1, 6076) = 5.53, p = 0.019). In contrast, regarding specific COVID-19 related fear, participants who used official websites showed on average significantly more symptoms than participants not using official websites (M = 10.29, SD = 6.96 vs. M = 9.52, SD = 6.88; F(1, 6176) = 13.56, p < 0.001).
Participants who reported social media as a primary source of information showed—in comparison to participants not using social media—on average significantly more unspecific anxiety and depression (PHQ-4: M = 4.40, SD = 3.19 vs. M = 3.90, SD = 3.15; F(1, 6076) = 36.03, p = 0.019) and significantly more specific COVID-19 related anxiety symptoms (M = 10.64, SD = 6.97 vs. M = 9.62, SD = 6.89; F(1, 6176) = 33.11, p < 0.001).
Participants with pre-existing fears of physical diseases (prior to the pandemic) reported on average significantly more frequent (M = 10.56 vs. M = 6.49; F(1, 5173) = 18.70, p < 0.001) and longer (M = 2.82 vs. M = 2.30 h; F(1, 5173) = 205.39, p < 0.001) media consumption than participants without pre-existing fears. Moreover, the group with pre-existing fears scored higher in specific COVID-19 related fears (M = 14.14 vs. M = 9.25; F(1, 5173) = 470.59, p < 0.001) and unspecific anxiety and depressive symptoms (PHQ-4: M = 5.61 vs. M = 3.83; F(1, 5173) = 303.31, p < 0.001).
For participants who reported pre-existing fears, the correlations of frequency and duration of media exploitation with anxiety and depressive symptoms were even stronger than for the those without pre-existing fears: duration and PHQ-4: r = 0.25; p < 0.001 vs. r = 0.18; p < 0.001 (statistically significant difference of the coefficients, z = 1.89, p = 0.03); frequency and PHQ-4: r = 0.10; p = 0.001 vs. r = 0.08; p < 0.001 (not statistically significant difference, z = 0.79, p = 0.22).
Moreover, there was a significant interaction of pre-existing fears and usage of official websites (F(1, 6074) = 4.17, p = 0.041). In the group with pre-existing fears the PHQ-4 Score was slightly higher for people using official websites (M = 5.61 vs. M = 5.49), in the group without pre-existing fears the PHQ-4 was lower for people using official websites than for people not using official websites to obtain information about COVID-19. Regarding the interaction with social media as well as regarding specific COVID-19 related fear there were no significant effects depending on pre-existing fears.
Reflection of media usage
The more time of media usage the participants reported, the higher was their subjective need to reduce their consumption of media because of its negative psychological consequences (r = 0.17; p < 0.001). Reductions that have been already made were significantly negatively correlated with the duration of current media consumption (r = − 0.08; p < 0.001). The frequency of media usage was also significantly but less strongly correlated with the need to reduce media consumption (r = 0.07; p < 0.001) and previously made reductions (r = − 0.03; p = 0.019).