Vicariously Experienced Racism Leaves Teens Feeling Helpless, but Also Spurs Activism

(Reuters Health) – Interviews with teens reveal that vicarious exposure to racism via the media can lead to feelings of helplessness, but may also spark activism as a coping mechanism, according to a new study.

The focus groups with 18 youth in the greater Chicago area ages 13-19 uncovered helplessness as the primary negative emotion they experienced when they observed racism occurring online and in other media. Some, however, talked about altruism and engaging in action or activism that could help others as a “key” coping strategy to combat negative emotions, the study team reports in JAMA Network Open.

“The biggest take-home for me is that adolescents are impacted by vicarious racism in the media,” said study leader Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an attending physician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Even if it doesn’t happen to them, they are impacted by it. Secondarily, there may be opportunities to use activism to help reduce the negative emotions that adolescents have.”

In their focus groups, Dr. Heard-Garris and her colleagues turned up two major themes. One, helplessness, came with several subthemes: racism is a part of the world; the intensity of the teens’ emotions sparked by the racism depended on how close the target of the racism was to them; it’s futile to try to respond.

That sense of futility was countered in some cases by the second major theme, activism, which also had several subthemes: activism as a way of helping others; online activism, in which teens grappled with racism on social media; and in-person activism, including group participation through school or community programs.

To explore racism’s emotional consequences and teen coping mechanisms, Dr. Heard-Garris and her team analyzed data from a larger qualitative study that examined three thematic categories of youth experiences with media, experiences with racism online, and responses to racism.

The researchers organized four focus groups, each with three to six participants recruited from community sites and youth organizations in the greater Chicago area.

Participants in the study included seven (39%) who self-identified as Black/African American, eight (44%) as Hispanic/Latinx, and three (17%) as white.

Some of the findings came as a surprise to the researchers.

“I thought there would probably be some sort of negative reaction,” said Dr. Heard-Garris. “But I was really surprised by the activism piece. It was not something we asked about. But it came up time and time again when we asked adolescents how they deal with the media and how they cope.”

Sometimes the activism was on an individual level. One teen recounted: “There was a time that somebody I know on his Instagram story, he posted like he was on a plane and I guess there was an Indian-Pakistani man and he took a picture of him and was like ‘I’m scared.’ I let him know that that was very ignorant, and then I posted it on my story, and made a comment about it being ignorant as well.”

Sometimes teens saw activism as something they did within their own social circles: “It’s funny because a lot of people think that teenagers are not socially aware, but I think the friends that I keep around me, once we start talking about something it goes on and on and on and on,” another teen was quoted as saying. “Being in programs that allow you to express yourself and actually talk to other people about how you feel on certain issues actually I feel like help everyone get a greater view and perspective on the different minds that we do have and how to accept how other people feel.”

“Qualitative studies such as this by Heard-Garris and colleagues can help to shine a light on experiences of young people and their interaction with experiences of racism, especially viewing racism that may not involve them or vicarious racism on online media,” said Dr. Ana Radovic of the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“This was a small racially and ethnically diverse sample mostly high school age. What is really compelling is something that is amazing in all adolescents. That despite seeing the negatives and feeling helpless or even that it may be futile to respond, adolescents still seek out positive ways to engage in activism that may lead to positive change,” Dr. Radovic noted. “Also compelling is that although this sample was interviewed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd murder, they were highlighting the salience of racism in the media, and noting that while they felt adults may not notice how it affects them, that it can have a big effect on our youth.”

“The findings of this article call for adults to create opportunities for youth voices to be highlighted and amplified, and for them to participate in the collective activism needed to address racist policies and practices, as well as individual episodes of racism on social media and other media,” Dr. Radovic said.

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, online June 15, 2021.

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