New research on the social media habits of inner-city youth finds that risks follow them online.
In recent years, Camden, New Jersey has found itself atop lists ranking America’s most dangerous cities. Of course, that doesn’t mean teenagers growing up here aren’t wasting time on the internet like everyone else.
“You know, there is a large part of social media that is just funny memes with cats, right?” says Robin Stevens, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing.
But in a paper recently published in the journal New Media & Society, she uncovered a far darker corner of the social media feeds of teenagers in Camden.
Stevens, who interviewed 60 black and hispanic youth for her study, heard repeatedly from participants about an endless stream of fights and violence on their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. They described pages and posts dedicated to sexual bullying and slut shaming, as well as other forms of what the kids simply refer to as ‘drama.’
One teenager likened his Facebook to a “ghetto news center.”
“So it was where you learned about everyone who had been killed, who had been shot, any violence that happened in the neighborhood…which girls had different issues happen,” she says.
For these kids, social media is where you share the worst gossip. Stevens says the effect was that of a microscope, amplifying how dangerous and hopeless the neighborhood seemed.
“So for kids in Camden, in many ways, Facebook makes Camden seem worse,” she says.
Robin Stevens is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing. (Kyle Cassidy/for WHYY)
Keep your guard up
Stevens clarifies that these teenagers are not describing cyber bullying, something teenagers in every community can face. Instead, this is what she calls “The Digital Hood.” It’s the idea that kids coming up in disadvantaged neighborhoods cannot escape its worst parts. The negatives will follow you online, even when you are trying to keep your nose clean.
That’s been true for Zaynah Jones, a 14 year old from a rough section of North Philadelphia.
“My neighborhood? It’s like, it is very fun, the people in it is fun,” she says with a nervous laugh. “But it is very dangerous.”
Michael Gray, 18, is from a different neighborhood in Philadelphia, but one with the same issues.
“My school is very tough,” says Gray. “You gotta keep your guard up, a little bit.”
These two students, both African American, were not part of the study, but their experiences online mirror what Stevens found just a few miles away in Camden.
They both describe a stream of fights and sexual content in their social media feeds.
“It’s [sic] actually pages on Twitter, like, just full of fights, nothing else,” says Jones. “Just fights.”
For Gray, “the minute a fight happens at school,” it is up on social media, shared and commented on until the next fight takes its place.
“I rarely see positive things,” he says. “It’s like once in a blue moon type thing.”
Jones and Gray both say the posts create a feedback loop, where fights and conflict online lead to fights and conflict offline. And they honestly wish it wasn’t like this.
“It does, like, frustrate me because I don’t want us to be put in a negative light. I want people to see us for what we can be, or what we really are, you know,” says Jones.
Jeffrey Lane, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, has also researched the digital landscape in disadvantaged neighborhoods. He says kids who post these images and videos are simply reacting to the forces around them.
“There is a lot of pressure to be tough on the street, and online,” he says. “And that pressure comes from older peers, and it comes from, in some cases, the opposite sex.”
Lane adds that it is important for adults to understand how social media amplifies conflict, so they can begin to craft strategies to de-escalate situations that can result in serious harm.
“It is an opportunity for new forms of intervention,” he says.
And while turning off social media may seem like the easiest solution, that’s a hard thing to ask of a teenager when so much of their life happens online. Instead, Robin Stevens from Penn says most kids figure out their own ways to navigate the space, and at the very least, not amplify problems with an ill-advised comment or ‘like’.
“They are very smart and very savvy,” she says. “I don’t think it is fair that they have to be, but they are.”
Many of these kids are used to keeping their guards up. That’s just carrying over into their digital lives now, too.