Videos capturing the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and many others have burned images of racial terror into our memories. These memories inevitably influence how we think, feel, and act moving forward…and for some individuals can result in trauma.

Teens in particular spend a lot of time online, which can be harmful for Black youth who are exposed to viral videos of race-based violence on the Internet. The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens report found that on average tweens (8 to 12 years old) spend 5 hours and 33 minutes online per day for entertainment purposes, and teens (13 to 18 years old) 8 hours and 39 minutes. Unsurprisingly, watching online videos was the favorite media pastime for both tweens and teens —irrespective of gender, racial/ethnic group or income level. Given the amount of time tweens and teens spend online they may be highly susceptible to seeing viral videos of race-based violence.

A recent study found that exposure to traumatic events online — images or videos of Black and Brown people being beaten, arrested, detained or killed by a police officer — was directly linked to trauma symptoms for Black teens. They reported trauma symptoms that included worrying about their safety or future and feeling keyed up and on guard. This study built off of previous research findings suggesting that tweens and teens who watched viral videos of race-based violence tended to also report depressive and post traumatic stress symptoms.

Viral videos of race-based violence are a double-edged sword, bringing further awareness to systemic racism and bolstering movements like #BlackLivesMatter while also having the potential to negatively affect the mental health of Black youth. The answer to protecting our Black youth against the potential harm of seeing videos of race-based violence is not eliminating them entirely, but rather implementing safeguards that may dampen the effects. Safeguards include continued advocacy for better regulatory guidelines on social media platforms to prevent things like automatic play of media. For example, The Kids Online Safety Act of 2022 is a recent bill passed that will provide tools for us to protect children’s health and well-being online. Safeguards may also include you having transparent and ongoing conversation with the tweens or teens in your life about racism and racial violence in America, and equipping them with tools to cope after watching these videos.

You can start these conversations by using open-ended questions to ask tweens and teens what they’ve seen on the Internet and to share their thoughts and feelings about any viral videos they’ve been exposed to. Questions to ask the tween or teen in your life might include:

  • “What came to mind when you saw the viral video?”
  • “How do you feel about it?”
  • “What are your friends saying about it?”

Asking open-ended questions gives the tween or teen space to share openly, and for some may be the first time they are processing their thoughts and feelings about a traumatic video they were exposed to. Listening AND validating their thoughts and feelings is key for establishing a safe space for tweens and teens. For example, you might say:

  • “It makes sense that you’re angry after watching that video, what was most upsetting for you?”
  • “Feeling numb about this video is probably a common feeling. We see so much violence against Black people that it becomes too much to process emotionally.”

Not all of the information that we find on the Internet is accurate or truthful. When you notice that information the tween or teen in your life shares with you is inaccurate, then you should provide gentle correction of misinformation or disinformation. An example of gentle correction might include:

  • “The Internet has so much information that it has become difficult to filter through what is true and what isn’t. I usually try to check my information with a couple of trusted sources. Let’s fact check this together.”

Highlighting that some information on the Internet is inaccurate or false while also guiding them through how to fact check mis- and disinformation on the Internet helps tweens and teens to learn how to critically engage with content and people in digital spaces. There are many websites that can help you and the tween or teen in your life to fact check information found on the Internet.

Lastly, it is important that you continue to engage the tweens and teens in your life in conversation that helps them to learn how to safely navigate the Internet. A recent study tells us that equipping people of color with the skills to critically engage with media and technology — through evaluation of how social inequities translate to what we see in media and how social stereotypes are perpetuated in media — may help protect against the negative psychological effects of exposure to viral videos of race-based violence. Examples of this might include having conversations of other ways in which racism is perpetuated in digital spaces, like how filters are used on social media apps like TikTok and Instagram to perpetuate White standards of beauty.

There are so many ways to equip the Black tweens and teens we love with skills to navigate racism and exposure to racial terror online, but you don’t have to do it alone. If you feel that a tween or teen you know is showing signs of trauma, then you can help get them connected to a therapist in your community. #BLKHLTH is mental wellness, and mental wellness is where we find true liberation.

This article originally appeared in BLKHLTH.


Ashley Maxie-MoremanAshley Maxie-Moreman, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in HIV Prevention and Treatment Services at Children's National Hospital.

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