I’ve been on the verge of quitting Social Media quite a few times. I succeeded in deleting apps from my phone for good, and I deleted a few accounts I saw no real use for.
But as a UX Designer, it is impossible for me to go completely “off the grid”. Not only is it part of my job to know how people interact with Media, but it is also the most common way of communicating and living, as of today.
We always interpret the world around us to make sense of what’s happening. To get results, our brain sometimes takes shortcuts that aren’t always accurate. These shortcuts are known as cognitive distortions.
Cognitive distortions are irrational thought patterns stemming from common thought processes. This could take form in jumping to the worst conclusions or blaming ourselves for things out of our control. None of us think rationally 100% of the time and distortions aren’t always considered an issue. Most people experience them once a while.
The problem is they happen automatically and are negatively biased. Negative emotions can result in unhealthy behaviors and stand in the way of our relationships and well-being. Research suggests when they get to an excessive degree, they can affect our mental health. Social Media can reinforce them in a way they might increase anxiety or result in depression.
“Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be. “— Wayne Dyer
Cognitive Restructuring is based on the principle that how we feel is not a result of what happens to us. It’s a result of how we think about what happens to us. It’s a core technique in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that helps challenge irrational thoughts. Identifying them helps us reframe situations. It’s not about ‘being more positive’, but replacing faulty ways of thinking with more accurate ones. The following steps are essential to examining irrational thought patterns:
- Identifying the trigger
- Questioning assumptions
- Evaluating evidence
- Testing alternatives
Taking those steps can help increase your awareness of negative thoughts to catch them before they get to you. Questioning our thoughts and assumptions is the most important step. The technique is based on Socratic Questioning. It’s been used in a study on nurse practitioners, which showed how it facilitated critical thinking. It’s also used as a teaching technique in school.
Those questions help us not trust every single thought to be a true representation of reality. It’s the kind of critical thinking that can help us regain control of our Social Media experience.
1. Polarized Thinking
Social media is known for reinforcing polarized thinking. Sometimes, it’s also called Black-and-White or All-Or-Nothing thinking. It happens when we interpret things only in terms of extremes. Personal qualities, other people, and different opinions from ours are placed in one of two opposite categories. Making them absolute.
Bias has gotten so exaggerated, people are often not able to communicate with a person on the “opposite side of things”. This can be frustrating and makes it easy to think it’s the way it’s always going to be. It doesn’t have to.
- Have I done enough research on the topic?
- What reasoning could the opposing side have? What’s their background?
- Could this be more complicated than I am making it to be?
2. Mental Filters
Mental Filters are like a pair of glasses that filter out anything positive, so everything is perceived as negative. It often happens when focusing on one detail and ignoring the rest.
This can also take shape by disqualifying the positive. Instead of filtering it out or ignoring it, neutral or even positive experiences get dismissed or argued against. Steven Lewis, a licensed marriage & family therapist, sees this in his clients. They dismiss positive statements so much they look for negatives on purpose, just to outweigh them.
Mental Filters are artificially amplified by Filter Bubbles. Anytime we are only surrounded by opinions we agree with they distort our understanding of the world. This hampers our ability to make balanced decisions. In his farewell speech, former President Obama referenced the idea of Filter Bubbles as follows:
“For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, in [..] social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. […] The splintering of our media into a channel for every taste — all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”
We often only get to see the content we want and less of what we don’t. Resulting in a very one-sided experience, where we perceive a lot of “other” content negatively.
- Could I be misinterpreting the situation because I haven’t heard this before?
- What evidence am I basing my opinion on?
3. Magnification & Minimization
“The problem isn’t you — it’s the crazy lenses you’re wearing“— David Burns
Magnification or minimization happens when we focus on one detail taken out of context. We take this detail and then conceptualize our whole experience based on it. Dr. David Burns, Professor in the Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, calls it the “binocular trick”. Errors, fears, or imperfections get exaggerated. Strengths and achievements are viewed as small and unimportant.
On social media, things often get blown out of proportion. Magnification takes flaws, errors, or minor news and exaggerates them. When we see one detail get shared thousands of times we tend to forget there might be more to the picture. Minimization dismisses our positive qualities to keep feeling inferior. This might happen when we compare ourselves with the highlight reel of other people’s lives.
- What else do I know about this issue? Could I do more research on the matter?
- Why haven’t I heard anything but this fact about it?
- What am I basing my disbelief on?
4. Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading & Fortune Telling)
A lot of times we assume we know what everyone is thinking without any evidence. Predicting what will happen based on little to no real proof can lead to assuming worst-case scenarios. We don’t justify those interpretations by facts.
Understanding the tone and meaning of each post we see on our timeline is hard. It often leaves no other option than trying to figure it out ourselves. But doubt can amplify personal fears when faced with vagueness. This can result in jumping to negative conclusions.
- Do I feel this way because I have encountered a similar situation in the past?
- What is different about this situation?
- What’s the worst that could happen?
5. Should Statements
Should Statements are all over the internet. Sensational headlines are supposed to make us feel like whatever lies beneath it is urgent. ‘Should Statements’ also appear when we compare ourselves to other people.
This is what you should be doing. This is what life should look like!
Most of the time we feel ‘Should Statements’ as attempts to motivate ourselves. But they almost always lead to feelings like shame, guilt, or self-loathing. Dr. Katharina Star, a professional anxiety counselor, says these statements are often formed by our minds. When they come from others it adds to anxiety and stress.
Some of us do it to other people as well. We hold them to a certain standard, even if we don’t know them. Setting up false expectations of what people should and should not do lead to frustration and resentment.
- Does this apply to me and my life?
- Is it fair to assume this applies to everyone?
- Is this thought realistic?
6. Overgeneralization & Labeling
Overgeneralizing means we draw general conclusions about the ability, performance, or worth of ourselves or another person. It’s also something we tend to do when we think something will happen to us again and again because it happens once.
Labeling is an extreme form of overgeneralization. It happens when we oversimplify instead of digging deeper. On Social Media, this happens a lot. People are eager to judge, as well as put themselves down (Everybody hates me!).
- Is there evidence to support my claims?
- Is there another way to interpret it?
- Do I know this person enough to support my claims?
7. Emotional Reasoning
A study conducted at the University of Indiana found Emotional Reasoning on Social Media to be more than twice as frequent in depressed individuals. We think because we feel a certain way, it must be true. This can lead to making decisions based on emotions and ignoring any evidence against it. Those emotions get treated as evidence of truth. Thinking because we feel a certain way, it must be true.
- Am I basing this on facts or feelings?
- Is my reaction making it harder to stay rational?
Reframing irrational thought patterns only works if we put in the time. Since the goal is to transform the way we interact with Social Media, not practicing will change little to nothing. Critical thinking has become an important part of Social Media use. A study conducted by Yong-Chil Yang and Seung-hwan Ahn suggests online discussions can even improve it. It’s still not always possible to do.
If you get overwhelmed or irritated on Social Media, remember to ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I feeling/thinking right now?
- What caused it?
- Is this thought valid?
- What am I basing it on?
- Is there a different way to be looking at it?
Practice hands-on. Write down how you feel, or ask the questions out loud. Make Cognitive Restructuring a tool you are used to. Asking questions forces us to slow down. Instead of binging away, we can become much more aware of what we are feeling, and when we should stop. When we become more aware of our thoughts, it becomes easier to change them.
This gives us a sense of agency and control, to think more clearly and rationally. Self-awareness makes us much more productive, as we seek real value from our experiences.
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