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Research Insights: Online Racial Discrimination Among Youth

Black teenager in a black hooded sweatshirt, wearing white headphones around his neck. Looking down and smiling at his white cell phone.

The Journal of Youth and Adolescence recently published a study, “The good with the bad? Social Media and Online Racial Discrimination Influences on Psychological and Academic Functioning in Black and Hispanic Youth.”

Here, lead author Dr. Alvin Thomas shares key findings of what we need to understand about this important topic affecting youth.

What did you explore?

We researched the impact of online racial discrimination and other toxicity in social media on mental health and school performance of 356 Black and Hispanic teenagers across the U.S. The data collection occurred in 2019 on the heels of increased and highly publicized political and social activism.

What did you learn?

We learned that the negative impact of social media use on the mental health of Black and Hispanic teenagers happens through online racial discrimination. This was the case whether youth were the targets of discrimination or witnessed someone else being discriminated against. This exposure has a grave impact. Once mental health is compromised by toxicity in the online environment, youth are less confident in their ability and skills for academic success.

What surprised you?

We were surprised to see – very clearly – the positive effect of social media on academics. We were not expecting that! We expected to confirm overwhelmingly negative effects, but the direct positive effect was robust when using social media for knowledge gain. We think that the key is whether you are using social media in energy-depleting ways.

What should we take away?

Social media is an indispensable socialization space for youth – and it’s not going away – so we must understand it better. People tend to assume social media is all bad for youth, but the research reveals positive benefits, too, including academic performance. That said, online racial discrimination is prevalent and damaging for children of color. We need to study the best ways to prepare children for these spaces and protect them from the toxic effects.

Read the full research publication.

Alvin Thomas at Nancy Nicholas HallDr. Alvin Thomas is a clinical psychologist, assistant professor and Phyllis Northway Faculty Fellow at the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He leads the Thomas Resilient Youth Lab and is the founder of the Black Fatherhood Podcast series.