Dismantling Oppression Series: Exposure to Online Racial Discrimination and Traumatic Events Online in Black Adolescents and Emerging Adults, An interview with Dr. Ashley D. Maxie-Moreman

Adolescents spend much of their time online, which can be detrimental for young people who experience race-related distress within this context. Alarmingly, research suggests that negative online experiences linked to race (e.g., racial discrimination, race-related traumatic events) are associated with psychological distress among Black youth. In their recent paper titled Exposure to Online Racial Discrimination and Traumatic Events Online in Black Adolescents and Emerging Adults, Drs. Ashley D. Maxie-Moreman and Brendesha M. Tynes probe these associations further by examining how online racial discrimination and traumatic events online relate to trauma symptoms of discrimination after accounting for gender identity and the college racial ethnic setting.

Dr. Maxie-Moreman kindly took the time to answer some of our questions on her new article:

1.     If you had to choose one main takeaway from your article, what would it be?

In this study we found that seeing a racist image on the internet, being the target of an individual saying mean or rude things about someone’s race or ethnicity online, or watching a video of a Black person being shot by a police officer on social media are linked to trauma symptoms specific to discrimination among Black adolescents and emerging adults. These findings are a testament to how the racism embedded within our digital ecosystems can have negative implications for the psychological adjustment of Black youth. I hope that after reading this article readers take away a greater sense of urgency with addressing cyber-racism, and especially as it relates to our Black teens and emerging adults.

 2.     Could you expand a little on the links between online racial discrimination and mental health outcomes among Black adults and adolescents?

Previous studies have linked experiences with individual online discrimination to psychological distress, depressive and anxiety symptoms, as well as externalizing behaviors. This study is one of the few to show associations between individual online racial discrimination and trauma symptoms, and even more specifically, trauma symptoms that are explicitly caused by experiences with discrimination. Interestingly, the strongest associations between online racial discrimination were found with uncontrollable distress and hyperarousal and alienation from others domains. In other words, people attributed some of the following symptoms directly to their past experiences with discrimination:

-       Trouble relaxing

-       Feeling numb or detached from others

-       Difficulty stopping or control their worrying

-       Feeling so restless that it is hard to sit still

-       Feeling a rush of intense discomfort, heart pounding, muscles tensing up, or sweating

-       When thinking about the experience, they cannot control their emotions

-       Feeling nervous in social situations and are afraid that people will notice them sweating, blushing, or trembling

-       Fearing social situations, causing a lot of problems in daily functioning

-       Fearing embarrassment

-       Feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge, especially around certain people

-       Avoiding certain activities in which they might be the center of attention

-       Worst fear of being embarrassed or looking stupid

-       Feeling isolated and set apart from others

-       Avoiding certain situations or speaking to certain people

Experiencing trauma symptoms of discrimination like these can significantly impact an individual’s daily functioning, who they choose to engage with, and can generally color an individual’s world perspective and interpretation of their future experiences. Any individual who has experienced trauma symptoms can attest to how trauma can leak into every crack and crevice of an individual’s life.

3.     In your study, you and your co-authors found that, among young Black college students, online racial discrimination and traumatic events online were associated with detachment from surroundings, difficulty relaxing, and worry about safety—in addition to a number of other symptoms of distress and hyperarousal. How might these outcomes be particularly detrimental to Black adolescents and young adults attending college/university?

            These outcomes are concerning in any setting. However, when you consider Black college students having to use much of their mental and emotional resources to manage trauma symptoms related to discrimination, particularly while at predominantly White institutions (PWIs), it leaves me wondering how much of these resources do they have left for actual learning and day to day functioning. Black students attending PWIs may be away from home, and thus far away from their support networks. Additionally, for some this could also be the first time they’ve been in mostly White spaces adding another layer to their experience. College administrators and professors should consider the ways in which online racism may affect their students, and the ways in which the ethnic-racial demographic make-up of their institution may contribute to or exacerbate negative psychological outcomes.

 4.     You and your co-authors also found that the ethnic-racial setting of college was associated with experiences of traumatic events online. Could you expand a little on what this means with regard to the adjustment of Black youth who face exposure to racial discrimination and race-related traumatic events online?

It is not quite clear as to what this positive association may indicate. What we know is that, specifically for individuals attending PWIs, this association was found. It may be that watching a traumatic event online, like the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot by citizens, is particularly triggering for Black college students in mostly White spaces. I imagine that a PWI may not feel very safe after seeing a video like that. We definitely need more research to help us understand how exposure to traumatic events online, and online racism more generally, may result in differential experiences based on ethnic-racial demographics of an individual’s social setting.

5.     What is something that you wish people knew more about on this topic?

I think that we know a lot right now about how online racism impacts psychological outcomes. However, I wish that we knew more about how it impacts physiological outcomes.

6.     Are there any other papers, talks, videos, etc. that you would recommend to others who want to learn more about this area of research?

There are a number of scholars that have contributed greatly to the literature on structural online racism. I would recommend reading the works of my co-author, Dr. Brendesha Tynes, who is one of the pioneers in this area of research. Additionally, Drs. Safiya Umoja Noble and Ruha Benjamin’s work on algorithmic bias and carceral technoscience are essential to understanding the complexities of online racism. Some texts to start with include: The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online; Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism; and Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. For those looking for a short but informative read to start off, check out Avriel Epps-Darling’s article in the Atlantic, How the Racism Baked into Technology Hurts Teens.

7.     What are some of the future directions you are most excited about in this area of research?

I’m excited about the field shifting its gaze towards physiological health outcomes and health disparities research. I am currently conducting a pilot study to examine links between online racism and pain outcomes in children and adolescents living with sickle cell disease. I hope that findings from this study will help us to better understand health disparities within pediatric chronic pain. I am also extremely excited about the innovative ways in which leaders in the field are imagining new and just digital ecosystems that lift up and center our youth.


Author Bio: Ashley Maxie-Moreman, Ph.D., is a Psychology Postdoctoral Fellow in the divisions of Hematology, Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplantation at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Dr. Maxie-Moreman’s research examines Black youth experiences with online racism and its impact on psychological and physical health outcomes. She is also a self-published author of a children’s picture book series. The most recent book in the series is titled Bray Bray Conquers the Coronavirus. This series centers Black children and aims to promote ethnic-racial identity development and address difficult topics in a developmentally appropriate way.

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