"The data provides a good indicator for the level of social interaction because time spent watching television generally increases with time spent at home. When people are home, they are limiting the number of contacts they make," said Michael Springborn, an economist at the University of California-Davis.

Television ratings data are consistently and widely available and "highly correlated with time spent in the home," Springborn added. Non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) such as hand washing, staying indoors and social distancing can play a key role in reducing the spread of infectious diseases.

"The swine flu outbreak that hit Mexico City in April 2009 could have been worse but spread of the virus was reduced by people's behavioural response of distancing themselves from each other," Springborn explained.

Certain age groups and socio-economic groups responded more strongly than others. The researchers found that the increase in TV watching for children and wealthier groups was more pronounced.

The authors also speculate that those from poorer backgrounds may face greater difficulty in taking self-protective actions like social distancing owing to less flexibility with working hours. The research was published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases.

 

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