Black People Are Dying, So Black Girls Seek Solace in ‘Safe Scrolling’
Black girls run the internet. No really, they do! If you need proof, just check the digital receipts. Earlier this year, collective viewership of the Verzus Battle: Brandy and Monica set an all-time record for Instagram Live views. Likewise, Black girls have driven some of Twitter’s most viral hashtags. Time and again, Black girls remind the world that they are digital powerhouses — a force to be reckoned with online.
Among the most active users of social media to date, Black girls come in contact with an enormous amount of digital content each day. Images highlighting the beauty of kinky and coily hair, videos of the latest TikTok challenge and posts noting the location of the nearest protest for Black lives are just a few of the topics flooding Black girls’ timelines. However, more and more videos of Black death are bizarrely sandwiched between advice and resource content on social feeds. Between its potential for usefulness and extreme distress, social media as a platform for social justice activism has proven to be a mixed bag for Black youth.
On the one hand, youth-led campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName and #DefundThePolice have revealed the power of digital organizing to enact tangible change offline. On the other hand, the hyper-circulation of murder videos has continued to impact Black youth’s psychological health in deeply troubling ways. Following the public, state-sanctioned killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake, rates of depression among Black Americans began to skyrocket. Social media, which has simultaneously been both a vehicle for transformative change offline and a conduit of racially traumatizing content online, has us wondering: How are Black youth using social media to support communal coping and digital wellness?
My own struggles with mental health following the killing of Philando Castile in 2016 led me to begin researching how Black youth handle the influx of racial violence and death on social media well before this current moment in the Black Lives Matter movement. Six years of study culminated in my dissertation, which centers the voices of 17 Black girls from across the U.S. and Canada (ages 18 to 24). Their stories provide critical insights into how Black youth can use social media to cope with and heal from racial trauma they are experiencing both off and online. You will hear from the girls I interviewed throughout this essay using pseudonyms, which is something researchers like me commit to, so we can protect the privacy of the people participating in our studies.
“We all have PTSD … because of social media, because of all this constant coverage, we have this fear of the police,” said Bre’anne of Black girls’ collective trauma. “Emotionally, I can say that it has taken a toll on me. It’s taken a toll on all of us.”
Even as a researcher I will say: the psychological trauma of witnessing Black death and dying online is immeasurable. In order to cope with the stress and fatigue, the girls in my study engaged in three types of wellness activities online:
- Black Joy & Laughter
The youth activists in my study commonly participated in digital spaces that focused on collective healing through joy, art and laughter. “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,” said Iyanah. “People on Twitter are just funny … I can just sit there and just laugh for hours. Especially if I’m feeling bad,” said Danielle. Whether it’s following a “clapback” thread on Black twitter, laughing at internet memes and GIFS, or having a digital hang-out with a couple friends, engaging in intentional acts of Black joy was crucial for healing.
- Rest & Relaxation
For Black girl activists who draw upon the image of the “strong Black woman” that doesn’t need a break, stepping back from activism can be particularly difficult and guilt-inducing. My study participants emphasized the need for rest and restoration. “If you don’t take care of yourself … you’ll go crazy thinking about all this injustice,” Bre’anne said. “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,” added Diamond. Rather than participate in racialized social media conversations all the time, the girls in this study suggest “unplugging” by engaging in restful activities like aroma therapy, napping or participating in culturally relevant sound baths, a type of a guided meditation that uses music and imagery to reduce racialized stress.
- Communal Coping & Social Media Therapy
While the young women I spoke to would sometimes take breaks from social media conversations about race and justice, they also said that carefully curated social media spaces could provide access to mental health resources designed specifically for those of us experiencing racialized trauma. As individuals, they sought out social media pages that frame violence, activism and/or mental health with a deep awareness of race, including @RootsofSouthLA, @TherapyforBlackGirls @SistaAfya and @dr.marielbuque. These pages often offered daily mantras, self-care tips or guided meditation that enabled the participants to cope during times they needed to be “alone.” They simultaneously expressed the importance of finding community when experiencing racialized trauma. Because they recognized how the open internet was often a violent and racially hostile place for Black girls, they often created private, invitation-only affinity spaces where they could discuss racial violence in safe and communal ways. “I’m in a bunch of Black student union pages and a bunch of artist pages and a bunch of Black artists pages,” said Alleyah, an avid proponent of private affinity spaces online: “A bunch of little mini communities of resistance I guess.”
While the perils of social media for Black youth remain high with repeated and graphic exposure to racialized violence, Black girls are nevertheless finding incredible ways to reclaim and recreate digital safe spaces that allow for joy, restoration and healing from trauma. It is critical that we continue to help each other to navigate social media in ways that foster digital wellness while warding off racialized trauma because we’ll need the fortitude to keep fighting.