Teens have been spending unprecedented time online in 2020, as the pandemic has shifted all of their social and academic interactions to virtual spaces. During this period, the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked historic protests and renewed energies in the national reckoning with racism.
As the pandemic evolved and the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, researchers Ming-Te Wang and Juan Del Toro of the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center tracked the online interactions of 602 teens in United States via daily surveys from March to November 2020. – 58% of study participants identified as black.
Black teens report frequent racist interactions online
Black teens reported an alarming level of encounters with racism online, with one in two experiencing one or more racist incidents online in the months the study was conducted. The researchers also tracked the teens’ mental health throughout the study. They found that when black youth experienced online racism, they were more likely to report deterioration in their mental health on the day of the incident and the day after. The researchers did not find that witnessing racial discrimination impacted the mental health of white adolescents.
The actual number of racist incidents was likely even higher, Del Toro told HuffPost. The survey asked participants each day if they had seen someone online say “something mean or rude about them because of their racial or ethnic group”.
Del Toro added that they only measure one form of racism online. “It’s possible that other kinds of unmeasured forms of online racial discrimination have occurred,” Del Toro continues, “but we haven’t assessed them.”
Brendesha Tynes, professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California, believes that the number of racist incidents experienced by black students is significantly higher. Tynes has also studied black college students’ experiences with online racism.
In another daily diary study of black youth living in the northeastern United States, Tynes told HuffPost, “we found that black youth have more than five discriminatory experiences per day. And most of those experiences are racial discrimination online.
The impact of racism and microaggressions on adolescents
While the University of Pittsburgh study found an immediate impact on adolescent mental health after an incident of online racism, there is also the cumulative effect of these experiences on young people’s emotional well-being at a later date. pivotal stage in their development.
Children often associate the Internet with freedom, identifying online spaces where they can explore, for example, their sexual and gender identities under the safety offered by anonymity. But it is this very anonymity that allows others to cover themselves up to express hateful and harmful ideas without fear of consequences. I
It can be surprising for children to discover this darker side of the online world, said Cindy T Graham, a child psychologist practicing in Maryland. Graham is not affiliated with either study.
When a movement like Black Lives Matter experiences a resurgence, like in the summer of 2020, “being active on social media is often a way for teens to get involved in [the] movement,” says Graham. Yet events like Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed have galvanized people on both sides. Young activists may be unprepared for the backlash and negativity they will face, which can be particularly harsh in online spaces.
“While they may be aware and savvy of the things out there on the internet, once you experience it for yourself, it’s on a different level,” Graham told HuffPost.
Children and teens can also bear the brunt of microaggressions online, which can take the form of non-offensive comments and other slights. Examples include being mistaken for another student of the same race or being assumed to play a certain sport because of your race.
“Adolescence being an important time to understand, to define, to begin to understand who you are as a person,” says Graham, “if you have frequent micro-aggressions, it starts to erode the way you perceive yourself.”
How parents can help children facing racism
What can families do to help children who experience online racism? The first step is to let them know that you’re ready to hear about their experiences online, whether good or bad. When a racist incident occurs, parents can also help children understand it by putting it into context.
“Black parents are often very good at telling their children about their history, preparing them for racial bias,” says Tynes. “In that case, I think they should try to help their kids put the messages into historical context, or help them see, ‘Oh, we’ve seen this before. They tried to portray us as animals, they tried to say these degrading things about us when they wanted to justify slavery, or when they [wanted to] justify segregation.
Parents and other adults in children’s lives can “give them a more accurate picture of glorious black history,” Tynes adds.
Acknowledging the “fear of wanting your child to be strong enough to deal with all these negative things,” Graham cautions parents against pressuring children to be “tough.” Life will bring many hardships, including racism, and families can be sources of support, helping children remember “all the good things about themselves so they have that to fall back on” when they are confronted with racist comments or assumptions.
For families of all racial backgrounds, open dialogue is essential when it comes to online content. If kids are afraid of your reaction, they won’t share with you when something upsetting happens online, and then you won’t be able to offer support or advice.
When a racist incident makes headlines, parents can ask teens if it’s been discussed at school or online, and what other children have said. Instead of expressing your own opinions, ask your child whether or not they agree with what was said and how hearing it made them feel.
Graham also suggests that parents talk to their children about “finding that balance between, is it time to argue?” Or is it something you should just ignore, especially if the comments are aimed directly at the child? Graham recommends that parents encourage children to see that sometimes, “it’s not being weak not to get into an argument or a fight.”
Parents of all races should encourage their children not to be bystanders
It is not only the perpetrators of racist incidents that pose a problem; it is also the large number of white children and children of other racial identities who watch these incidents unfold and remain silent.
Tynes noted that it should come as no surprise that white children allow racist incidents online to go unchallenged at a time when teachers are limited in what they can teach about racism and history. But families can engage their children on these topics, encouraging them to take an active role as allies.
Children may be in a good position to speak up when they witness racism online and are not the intended target. And often a person who stands up and says something is wrong inspires others to add their voice to the chorus. Graham notes that when racism pops up online, “a lot of times you’ll see them back off once you get some feedback.”
While their understanding of racism may be a work in progress, kids are fluent in the language of bullying, and in that context, they know what it means to be an ally. Schools are increasingly motivated to take action even when bullying happens online, but they won’t know it’s happening unless students report it. Even if your teen feels uncomfortable taking a public stand against an act of racism, they should know that they can take a screenshot and report the incident.
Parents, teachers and other adults can help children learn to confront racism by providing opportunities for children of all races to share their experiences. They need to know that adults care about what happens to them online.
“We should also create safe spaces where young people feel comfortable sharing stories of discrimination and where they can learn from each other about how to deal with encounters with discrimination,” Del Toro told HuffPost. .