News this month that Garfield High School’s varsity basketball team was targeted with racist Twitter comments from students at an opposing team’s school caused outrage, followed by shrugging. What is there to do about such things? It happens every day in modern society so – why worry about it?
It turns out that for kids and their families there are plenty of reasons to worry, including poor academic performance and depression.
Brendesha Tynes, PhD, of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, is one of the nation’s foremost experts on racist cyberbullying and the role the internet plays in child development. A researcher on educational psychology since the early 2000s, Tynes’ work on the issue offers a fascinating glimpse at the long-term mental health impacts online racist harassment has on children.
The Skanner News: This is the kind of topic that many of us assume is more researched than it is. Can you talk about your work and how you are digging into this growing problem?
Brendesha Tynes: I have conducted a longitudinal study of the risk and protective factors associated with online racial discrimination, and we can now look at three waves of data and see if over time these experiences are impacting our kids’ academic performance, their mental health, and their behavior. Interestingly we've just analyzed waves one and two, and we showed that experiencing online racial discrimination at time one, is associated with depressive symptoms at time two, which is one year later.
We also see increased anxiety and problem behavior – aggressive behavior. We show that discrimination is related to GPA over time, through its effect on depressive symptoms.
So basically, if you experienced discrimination, it's usually associated with depressive symptoms. And depressive symptoms can lead to poor academic performance.
TSN: Is there any part of this research that has surprised you?
Tynes: What I have been a bit concerned with, and maybe surprised, is that with the election of a Black president we actually have more racism online. For example, Stormfront.org crashed on the night that President Obama got elected, because they had so many new visitors. The SimonWiesenthalCenter has also reported exponential growth in terror and hate sites. They are now tracking 20,000, up from 15,000 just last year.
TSN: What's the most important thing for local communities to know about this abusive cyberbullying, especially racist cyberbullying specifically? And why does it matter?
Tynes: In my research, this form of bullying and harassment is actually the most common. We've shown that 55 percent of adolescents say that they've witnessed people saying mean or rude race-related comments online. And then about 31 percent of African Americans say that they've experienced it directly. So the fact that it's so common means that we need to pay more attention to children; teachers, administrators, the counselors, parents need to be aware that this is happening, and happening quite often. Parents of children of color should be especially vigilant at arming their kids with coping strategies that they can use when they encounter racist comments online.
TSN: Because one of the most interesting things I saw about this topic, and about your research, is that it seems white students are not affected the same way as say, for example, Black students.
Tynes: They're not, and the interesting thing is with white kids, we found that many of them did not even know their race. When we asked them a simple question about what their racial background was, they were confused.
And when we asked them – some of them would say, yes I have experienced racial discrimination. And then when we asked them for an example, they say, well, one time a British person was talking about an American. And so – even if you call a white person by a racial slur, it does not mean the same thing to them because they are the dominant group. Everything in society, from their textbooks to every commercial that you see, every program that you watch, reinforces the superiority of whites. So of course when you go online and somebody says something mean about your race, you have the positive reinforcement from practically every aspect of society.
It's just very different, we find no association for whites when we do separate analyses with their racial group. Their direct experiences with racial discrimination are not associated with depressive symptoms, or anxiety.
Now we have another question and we’re still trying to figure out what this means, but when white people witnessed other people, other races experiencing discrimination, it does cause them to feel a bit of anxiety, over time.
So, that's a finding we're toying with and trying to figure out what that means, but overall they're not impacted in the same way.
TSN: Dr. Tynes, as a researcher, as a scientist, you must have a goal. Is there something that you're trying to achieve here? Because this is your life's work. What are you really reaching for?
Tynes: I would like to improve the life chances of underrepresented youth. And this is a major barrier because we know that racial discrimination, both off-line and online, is linked to academic performance. Poor performance in school; it definitely will impact their life chances.
And so my goal is to create interventions that will train youth to cope with discrimination and ultimately protect themselves from its negative impact. When they see that sort of discrimination online, they have something in their heads, they have a message that will counter what they see. I'm not going to rely on other people to stop spewing the hate -- that will never happen. But I want to arm the kids who are most often the target with a toolkit so that they can protect themselves.
For more information on Brendesha Tynes’ work, go to www.rossier.usc.edu.