Q&A: What to Know About Digital Spaces, Youth, and Perspectives on Race

Assistant Professor Valerie Adams-Bass answers questions about media engagement by youth, the influence of social media, and what adults can do going forward.

Leslie Booren

School is out for the summer and most teenagers’ routines include less structured time. For many adolescents this may mean more screen time. A recent report showed a 17% increase in screen use among teens in the last 2 years. According to Valerie Adams-Bass, assistant professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, media consumption can shape adolescents’ perspectives on racial stereotypes and identity.

Adams-Bass studies media stereotypes, racial socialization and racial identity in Black youth. Through her research at Youth-Nex, she examines how Black adolescents interpret negative media stereotypes and whether the messages presented are internalized or buffered as a result of racial socialization experiences.

We sat with Adams-Bass to learn more about digital spaces and their impact on youth.

Q: Why is understanding the media and its’ influences important in the context of youth and race?

A: Media has always been influential whether we are referencing music, music videos or televised media. In one form or another media has been presented as entertainment, but it has historically been used to reinforce social norms, to introduce alternative narratives, and in some situations to educate. Music has an important aspect of social justice movements. Sitcoms, such as “Archie Bunker and Good Times,” reflected social tensions being experienced in the US. Music written and produced by Black musicians during the Civil Rights Movement included messages for Movement participants. It is important for adults to understand that the media is not just for entertainment but can be influential in how youth understand and make meaning of things in their life.

Q: How have youths' engagement with media changed in the last 2-5 years?

A: Very early, seminal studies of media suggest Black youth viewed TV or visual media for entertainment compared to White youth who watched to learn about social norms1. Now Black youth are exposed to media images of Black youth around the clock, 24/7. Social media extends opportunities for Black youth to be exposed to a variety of messages, but also to become producers of media content, creating their own narratives. Young people are using mobile phones to create music, movies, businesses as influencers and to start social movements.

Q: Why is understanding how media is produced important when it comes to race and the media?

A: Stage shows that predate TV included exaggerated stereotypes of Black people. The characters were written and created by White people, often White men. In fact, Black characters were played by White actors--this is where blackface originated and why it is offensive. The messages and characterizations of stage entertainment are the foundation for much of the televised media today. Because the internet makes media so accessible, and we attend to, “what is happening now?”, many people are unaware of the connection to some of their favorite Black characters.

Media images of Black people are traditionally curated from a non-Black or White viewer’s perspective. Most images whether animated or live action are written and shot from this perspective. Relatively recently there have been a few exceptions, but even those media products are muddled by decisions that express concern about the discomfort of White viewers. I am thinking of the Juneteenth episode of “Blackish” and the swap out of the oldest daughter in “My Wife & Kids” which was syndicated globally. The “Blackish,” Please Baby Please episode was filmed in 2017 with a 2018 air date, but it was tabled until 2020 because of the fear of audience backlash. The original “My Wife and Kids” actress Jazz Raycole, who played the part of Claire, was a darker hue. She was replaced with a lighter skinned actress with no real explanation. Although not confirmed, viewers assumed that skin-toned played a part in the recasting. Colorism impacts casting decisions. Viola Davis consistently uses her platform to draw attention to the color casting of Black woman in Hollywood.

My students and I are coding focus group data in my lab. At one point in a focus group of high school students, they don’t just comment on the images of Black women but begin to discuss the hue of the women who are favored in the media and conclude these are often the lighter skinned Black women.

Q: Earlier you mentioned social media. In what other ways has social media changed how youth consume media and how it impacts their understanding of racial stereotypes?

A: The addition of social media means messages communicated by traditional mediums are replicated at an increased rate. Some youth and children come to understand and make meaning of life experiences through the models that are projected via media. Others can become victims of bullying or experience mental duress when exposed to negative messages about Black people or violence against Black people repeatedly. The father of reality TV is Flavor Fav with his show, “The Flava of Love,” launched a franchise of reality TV that projects distorted images of Black culture, families and relationships. It isn’t just Black viewers watching these shows. So we have non-Black viewers who perceive these as representative of Black people and Black culture.

Additionally, when violence against Black people occurs such as the murders of George Floyd, Filando Castille and countless others it is replayed not just on mainstream news, but it becomes embedded in peoples’ social media threads. Tynes and colleagues have published studies that demonstrate Black people experience post-traumatic stress after exposure to racial media content.

In my studies, some youth are able to distinguish negative stereotypes from positive which is good. What was (is) concerning is the youth who endorsed the negative stereotypes as genuine representations of Black people. The males particularly endorsed negative stereotypes about Black women.

Q: What can adults do to better support youth consuming regular media?

A: Watch, read and/or listen to what young people are listening to so that you can be informed and ready for conversations.

Not a new suggestion, but an important suggestion is to have access to your child’s accounts if they are under 18. If you are an educator or service provider create an account and follow the popular personalities that young people follow. This allows you to be attuned to potential trouble spots and when an intervention is needed.

Create a virtual [media] space to collaborate with young people to create organic content or content in response to media that is being consumed. This space can be an account on a social media platform, vlog, blog, podcast, etc.

1 Greenberg, B. S., & Dominick, J. (1969). Racial and Social Class Differences in Teen-Agers' Use of Television. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 13(4), 331-443.

News Information