A key facet of cognitive behavioural therapy is challenging “cognitive distortions”, inaccurate thought patterns that often affect those with depression. Such distortions could include jumping to conclusions, catastrophising, black and white thinking, or self-blame — and can cause sincere distress to those experiencing them.
But how do we track cognitive distortion in those with depression outside of self-reporting? A new study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, explores cognitive distortions online, finding that those with depression have higher levels of distortion in the language they use on social media.
This article contains discussion of suicide and self-harm
In 2014, the Samaritans launched what seemed like an innovative new project: Radar. Designed to provide what the charity described as an “online safety net”, users could sign up to Radar to receive updates on the content of other people’s tweets, with emails sent out based on a list of key phrases meant to detect whether someone was feeling distressed.
In principle, this meant people could keep an eye on friends who were vulnerable: if they missed a tweet where somebody said they felt suicidal or wanted to self-harm, for example, Radar would send it on, in theory increasing the likelihood that someone might get help or support.
In practice, however, things weren’t so simple. Some pointed out that the app could be used for stalking or harassment, allowing abuse to be targeted during someone’s lowest point. There were false positives, too — “I want to kill myself”, for example, is often used as hyperbole by people who aren’t actually distressed at all. And others felt it was an invasion of privacy: their tweets might be on a public platform, they argued, but they were personal expression. They hadn’t consented to being used as part of a programme like Radar, no matter how well meaning it was.
Samaritans shut down Radar just a week after launch. But since then, the use of social media data in mental health research — including tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts, and blogs — has only increased. Researchers hope that the volume of data social media offers will bring important insights into mental health. But many users worry about how their data is being used.
Over the last few years, memes have played an increasingly important part in online political discussion: in 2016, the Washington Post dubbed the 2016 presidential election “the most-memed election in U.S. history”, and CNN has already christened the 2020 race “the meme election”.
But politicians may want to pause for thought before they hit send on that jokey tweet. New research in Communication Research Reports, from Ohio State University’s Olivia Bullock and Austin Huber,suggests that humour doesn’t always go down well online — and that this can impact what voters think of particular candidates and potentially how they vote.
Is it really believable that Hillary Clinton operated a child sex ring out of a pizza shop — or that Donald Trump was prepared to deport his wife, Melania, after a fight at the White House? Though both these headlines seem obviously false, they were shared millions of times on social media.
The sharing of misinformation — including such blatantly false “fake news” — is of course a serious problem. According to a popular interpretation of why it happens, when deciding what to share, social media users don’t care if a “news” item is true or not, so long as it furthers their own agenda: that is, we are in a “post-truth” era. One recent study suggested, for example, that knowing something is false has little impact on the likelihood of sharing. However, a new paper by a team of researchers from MIT and the University of Regina in Canada further challenges that bleak view.
The studies reported in the paper, available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, suggest that in fact, social media users do care whether an item is accurate or not — they just get distracted by other motives (such as wanting to secure new followers or likes) when deciding what to share. As part of their study, the researchers also showed that a simple intervention that targeted a group of oblivious Twitter users increased the quality of the news that they shared. “Our results translate directly into a scalable anti-misinformation intervention that is easily implementable by social media platforms,” they write.
Over the last few years, so-called “fake news” — purposefully untrue misinformation spread online — has become more and more of a concern. From extensive media coverage of the issue to government committees being set up for its investigation, fake news is at the top of the agenda — and more often than we’d like, on top of our newsfeeds.
But how does exposure to misinformation impact the way we respond to it? A new study, published in Psychological Science, suggests that the more we see it, the more we’re likely to spread it. And considering the fact that fake news is more likely to go viral than real news, this could have worrying implications.
From digital detoxes to the recent Silicon Valley fad of “dopamine fasting”, it seems more fashionable than ever to attempt to abstain from consuming digital media. Underlying all of these trends is the assumption that using digital devices — and being on social media in particular — is somehow unhealthy, and that if we abstain, we might become happier, more fulfilled people.
But is there any truth to this belief? When it comes to social media, at least, a new paper in Media Psychology suggests not. In one of the few experimental studies in the field, researchers have found that quitting social media for up to four weeks does nothing to improve our well-being or quality of life.
What is it about social media that makes discussions about controversial topics so caustic and unpleasant? A variety of reasons have been put forward — such as the tendency for outrage to self-perpetuate, as we reported earlier this week. But now a new study, published in PLoS One, implicates a concept so far explored in philosophy rather than psychology. This is “moral grandstanding” — publicly opining on morality and politics to impress others, and so to seek social status.
Spend any amount of time online and you’re likely to see the same patterns repeat themselves over and over again: somebody says something offensive or controversial on social media, they’re met with anger and disgust, and they either apologise or double down.
For some, this cycle has become somewhat of a career, with the garnering of outrage forming the backbone of their (often incredibly tedious) public personas. But does responding to such toxic or offensive remarks, especially en masse, actually work? Or does it simply increase sympathy for the offender, no matter how bigoted their remarks were to begin with?
According to research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the latter is more likely. The paper looked at the impact of viral outrage on convincing observers that an offender is blameworthy — and found that as outrage increased, observers believed it was “more normative” to express condemnation, but simultaneously believed that outrage was excessive and felt more sympathy for the offender.
At 8:07am on a Saturday morning in early 2018, phones throughout Hawaii buzzed with a distressing message. “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter,” it read. “This is not a drill.” Similar warnings interrupted television and radio transmissions. And until a follow-up message 38 minutes later clarified that it had been a false alarm, many residents were left expecting the worst.
But according to a new study published in American Psychologist, the toll on Hawaii residents lasted much longer than those terrifying minutes. Researchers analysing the kinds of words tweeted before and after the false alarm have found that anxiety seemed to be heightened for days — particularly among those who appeared the least anxious to begin with.
You might imagine – as prior research suggests many people do – that putting your feelings into words will only intensify them. In fact, many laboratory studies have found the opposite to be true. Stating out loud, or writing down, what you are feeling – a process that psychologists call “affect labelling” – seems to down-regulate emotions, diminishing their intensity.
Now an intriguing study has explored this phenomenon outside of the lab, analysing over a billion tweets to find examples of when people used a tweet to put their emotional state into words. From analysing the emotional language used in preceding and subsequent tweets, Rui Fan and his colleagues were able to see how the act of affect labelling influenced the course of an emotional state. “We found that, for a majority of individuals, emotional intensity decreased rapidly after their explicit expression in an ‘I feel’ statement,” the researchers write in their paper in Nature Human Behaviour.