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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Keep Social Media from Messing with Your Head

By Paula Durlofsky

Let’s take a moment now to review three cognitive distortions commonly associated with social-media use. 

1. Polarized thinking (black-and-white thinking). A person with polarized thinking categorizes people and situations as either/or, all/none, and good/bad. Cognitive distortions of this kind lead to emotional distress, because this kind of thinking doesn’t take into account the complexity of most people and most situations. In addition, black-and-white thinking causes a person to experience life and feel emotions in extremes. Black-and-white thinking or all-or-none thinking is often what lurks underneath feelings of FOMO, envy, or low self-esteem triggered from social-media use. One way to avoid this pitfall while on social media is to learn how to be more flexible in your thinking and skillful at finding a middle ground. For example, if black-and-white thinking causes you to feel envious while scrolling through your friends’ news-feeds or Instagram posts, remind yourself that life is complex and multilayered. This means that, in reality, no one’s life can be perfect all the time. Make a list of at least three things you feel grateful for in your life and three positive qualities you love about yourself that you can refer to whenever you’re feeling bad about yourself. 

2. Jumping to conclusions. At the heart of this cognitive distortion is the belief that we know exactly what another person is feeling and thinking—and exactly why they act the way they do. It’s a kin to being a mind reader. It’s not hard to imagine how communicating via text, e-mail, and social-media messaging makes this kind of cognitive distortion more likely to manifest. This is because when important communication clues are missing, like body language and vocal tone, we’re more likely to misunderstand what people are trying to communicate and therefore fill in the gaps by jumping to conclusions. Misunderstandings often lead to online drama, disagreements, and conflict. One way to counteract this cognitive distortion is to simply ask yourself, “Do I have enough evidence to support my conclusion?” 

3. Should statements. Many people use should statements like, “I should do this” or “I must do that” as a way to motivate themselves. But did you know this kind of thinking often causes the opposite result? This is because should, ought, and must statements can cause us to feel angry, pressured, resentful, and depressed. For example, someone might feel they should, ought, or must get married because they’re at an age where many of their friends are getting married. This person notices that after being on social media they question their direction in life. But in actuality, this person just completed graduate training in a field they love. Doing what they thought they should do, based on what their friends are doing, might have prevented them from pursuing their passions. And it’s important to remember that what we say to ourselves influences how we feel! 


Below are four ways you can challenge and change cognitive distortions when logged on and in real life. 

• Keep a daily thought journal. The first step in making changes of any kind is to identify what exactly needs changing. Get in the habit of jotting down all the negative and troublesome thoughts you have when scrolling through social media. Extend this to include all the negative thoughts you have in real life as well. 

• Make a habit of regularly examining your thoughts. Set aside a time each day to read over all the negative thoughts written down in your journal. When reviewing them, practice being as objective as possible. The purpose of this exercise is to learn to identify the most common cognitive distortions affecting your thinking and in what context or circumstances they are most likely to occur. 

• Reflect, reflect, reflect. Get into the habit of closely examining your negative thoughts. For example, do you find that you often make negative generalizations? Or are you always jumping to conclusions about the lives of your friends on social media based on the pictures they post? Ask yourself, “Are my negative thoughts simply my personal opinions or hard-and-fast facts? 

• Get outside of yourself. You can do this by simply asking yourself, “Would I think and feel the same way about a friend in the exact same situation?” All too often we are much harder on ourselves than we are with family and friends. Learning to be loving and compassionate with ourselves is a huge step toward being able to diminish cognitive distortions.  

Excerpted, with permission from the author and publisher, from Logged In and Stressed Out: How Social Media Is Affecting Your Mental Health and What You Can Do About It by Paula Durlofsky, PhD. 

Paula Durflosky, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychological Association’s Device Management and Digital Intelligence committee. Find her at