The growing use of social media as a platform for social justice activism has illuminated both the promise and the perils of social media for Black teens. On the one hand, teen-led campaigns, like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, have shed light on the prevalence of racist violence and police brutality against Black Americans. On the other hand, the hypercirculation of graphic murder content has resulted in significant increases in anxiety and depression among Black teens. The complexity of social media to act as both a vehicle for transformative change offline and a conduit of racially traumatizing content online raises some important questions. Namely, how are Black teens surviving these complicated digital spaces? And are they using social media in ways that support communal coping and digital wellness?
I began researching how Black girls handled the influx of racial violence on social media well before this current moment in the Black Lives Matter movement. My dissertation, which focused on the mental and emotional consequences of witnessing viral Black death and dying, was inspired by my own struggles with mental health following the killing of Philando Castile in 2016. This qualitative study, conducted over six years, centers around the voices of 17 Black girls (age 18 to 24) from across the United States and Canada. Their stories provide critical insights into how social media may be used now by Black teens to cope with and heal from racial trauma they are experiencing both offline and online.
The psychological trauma of witnessing Black death and dying online was immeasurable for the girls in this study. Bre’anne captures Black girls’ collective trauma, stating, “We all have PTSD ... because of social media, because of all this constant coverage, we have this fear of the police. Emotionally, I can say that it has taken a toll on me. It’s taken a toll on all of us.” In order to cope with the stress and fatigue of witnessing racialized violence on social media, the girls in my study engaged in three types of wellness activities online:
Experiencing Black joy and laughter
Participating in digital spaces focused on collective healing through joy, art, and laughter was a popular means of coping for the girls in my study. Iyanah shared, “Black Twitter is so great ... it feels like a community space you can go and laugh or grieve or just connect with the rest of the Black community.” Danielle echoed these sentiments, stating, “People on Twitter are just funny ... I can just sit there and just laugh for hours. Especially if I’m feeling bad.” Whether it’s following a “clapback” thread on Black Twitter, laughing at internet memes and GIFs, or having a digital hangout with a couple friends, engaging in intentional acts of Black joy was a crucial part of healing.
Unplugging for rest and restoration
The study participants also emphasized the need for rest and restoration, especially for Black girls that see themselves through the lens of the “strong Black woman.” Diamond stated, “as much as [racial justice] dialogue is important sometimes, it’s really important to just tune out and just not have to do that labor.” Rather than participate in racialized social media conversations all the time, the girls in this study suggest temporarily “unplugging” and engaging in restful activities like aromatherapy, napping, or participating in culturally relevant sound baths (a type of guided meditation using music and imagery to reduce racialized stress).
Finding sources of communal coping and social media therapy
In addition to disengaging from social media (even if just temporarily), the girls simultaneously stressed the importance of accessing race-conscious mental health resources online. They sought out the social media pages of organizations that focus on Black mental health, such as Therapy for Black Girls (@therapy4bgirls) and Sista Afya (@sistaafya), which offered insights, resources, and activities they could use to cope as an individual.
They simultaneously expressed the importance of finding community when coping with racist trauma. Recognizing how the open internet was often a violent and racially hostile place for Black girls, the participants often created private, invitation-only affinity spaces where they could discuss racial violence in safe and communal ways. Alleyah, an avid proponent of private affinity spaces online, noted, “I’m in a bunch of Black student union pages and a bunch of artist pages and a bunch of Black artist pages. A bunch of little mini-communities of resistance, I guess.”
Although the perils of social media for Black youth remain high with repeated and graphic exposure to racialized violence, my research shows that Black girls are nevertheless finding incredible ways to reclaim and recreate digital safe spaces that allow for joy, restoration, and healing from racialized trauma online. It is critical that we—as teachers, researchers, and caring adults—continue to help teens navigate social media in ways that foster digital wellness and insulate them against racialized trauma both on and offline.
Tiera Chanté Tanksley, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scholar at the UC Irvine Connected Learning Lab.
This essay was written as part of the Common Sense research report Tweens, Teens, Tech, and Mental Health: Coming of Age in an Increasingly Digital, Uncertain, and Unequal World. Learn more about the report.