Life is plenty with opportunity to feel horrible about oneself.
But if we’re honest about the role the internet plays in our everyday lives, digital media has a particular way of penetrating the psyche. It can increase our critical inner voice when we witness people forming cliques to which we don’t belong, photographs of superstars who look impossibly beautiful, and influencers whose meteoric success evokes envy and self-doubt. It can also make bullying instantaneous and constant, instead than limited to a real workplace or classroom.
The difference between real life and the internet is that social media platforms transport these sensations, in a 30-second scroll, to the palm of our hands. The algorithms controlling them keep serving up such content, seemingly unable to detect a distinction between genuine interest in what we’re seeing and lingering born of disappointment, irritation, or fury.
This is especially difficult for children and teenagers who have yet to develop coping skills and experience that will help them gain self-confidence and perspective. That’s why so many people are outraged at how social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok contribute to the creation of toxic environments for young people.
While we can’t expect youth to develop the skills to navigate these challenges without social media companies making fundamental changes to improve safety and prioritise well-being over engagements and profits, certain strategies can help reduce the impact of negative, habitual thoughts based on faulty or inaccurate assumptions.
These thoughts have a name: cognitive distortions
Dr. Willough Jenkins, psychiatrist and inpatient medical director of Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, says cognitive distortions are regularly exhibited by adolescents in emotional or psychological distress, regardless of age or internet use. This is especially true when it comes to issues involving the usage of digital media. Being digitally harassed or bullied, as well as feeling alienated online and seeing images that promote disordered eating, can all trigger negative feelings.
When you see someone who appears to be flawless, you could think to yourself: “Oh, I’m so unattractive. I’m not worth anything.” According to Jenkins, this is an example of all-or-nothing thinking, which is one of ten cognitive distortions. If someone sees a funny TikTok influencer and thinks to themselves, “Gosh, I’m not nearly that quick-witted and amusing,” they may be engaging in a cognitive distortion known as discounting the positive since they’ve rejected how they make their friends laugh. After seeing their friends’ pictures, a young user may tell themselves things like “I should workout more” or “I should dress like that.” Because of their scolding, self-blaming character, such words can encourage negative thinking.
Fighting cognitive distortions might be scary or overwhelming, but according to Jenkins, the following tactics can help. Of course, when they feel it is necessary, young people should seek professional aid and counselling.
1. Label cognitive distortions
To cope with cognitive distortions, the first step is to recognise them. For this reason, young patients at Rady Children’s Hospital who are being treated for mental health difficulties are urged to master all ten cognitive distortions. (This is a list suggested by Jenkins.)
Jenkins, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Diego, argues that labelling a thought “takes away a little bit of the power from it.” “By breaking it down into what it is, rather than simply feeling this impending negativity, it allows you to deal with it.”
2. Weigh the evidence
Jenkins suggests that you classify cognitive distortions by writing them down as soon as you notice them, as this will help you see and comprehend them more clearly. She next proposes making a list of the facts supporting or refuting each thought. So, if you honestly believe you’re the ugliest person on the planet, does your list back up that belief, or does it represent concerns or insecurities about your appearance?
Jenkins advises young people to list things they’re proud of while utilising this strategy, which can successfully dilute negative thoughts and modify your mindset. It’s also important to keep in mind that not all negative thoughts are true. Regardless of whether you’re obese or skinny, you can still be attractive to yourself and others, despite an inner voice that tells you otherwise. When this happens, impartial comments from someone you trust, such as a friend, parent, or therapist, can be quite beneficial.
3. Distraction is your friend
Another useful tactic is distraction. Passing the time by doing things that make you happy, such as painting, cooking, or taking a walk, might help relieve the stress of cognitive distortions.
“A lot of thoughts feel pretty strong in the moment,” Jenkins adds, “but as time passes, they usually get a little less strong on their own.”
4. Let it go
Jenkins advises leaving a negative idea alone if it persists despite being labelled as a cognitive distortion and being discussed. The mindfulness practise of seeing a thought without judgement and then letting it go can help you get some much-needed space.
5. Treat yourself like you would a friend
Often, how you handle a buddy who is in distress differs from how you talk to yourself. Try talking to yourself as if you were talking to someone you care about to see if it softens or eliminates a negative thinking.
6. Be mindful of physical and emotional red flags
Constant use, difficulty falling asleep, feeling anxious (on edge, panicked, or heart racing) while online, struggling to be present during in-person social interactions, overwhelming fear of missing out (FOMO), and thumb pain caused by too much scrolling are all signs that you’re negatively affected by social media. Although recognising these signals will not eliminate or lessen negative thoughts, it will serve as a reminder of the necessity of self-care methods such as meditation and social media usage limits.
7. Remember that negative feelings are normal
Recognizing cognitive distortions does not preclude you from experiencing or expressing negative emotions. Such sentiments may indeed convey a sense of unfairness or cruelty. If a child is subjected to racism, bullying, or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, the situation must change, not the child must merely become more robust to it.
“Tackling negative thinking based on the trigger doesn’t mean what provoked you is OK,” Jenkins adds, “but having these abilities is incredibly helpful in all aspects of life.” “Sometimes it will be a circumstance that is really unjust or incorrect, but you still need to be able to sleep and get some rest that night.”
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