Here's What These Social Media Platforms Are Doing To Protect Black Teens

Instagram, Tiktok, and Snapchat present specific kinds of bias for Black teen users. Are the platforms doing enough to protect them?

Teens using social media while in the kitchen at home
Photo: Getty Images

It was "random and unexpected" when college student and Chicago native Joy Lewis, 18, received a direct message on her Instagram account. When she opened the message, she immediately didn't feel safe. "I was told that I was a monkey and that I should go back to Africa where I belong," says Lewis. "I did report it and that person was blocked, and Instagram did not reach out to me. In that moment, I felt unprotected by Instagram."

From posting videos to receiving direct messages and more, teenagers are inundated with various forms of content and communication on social media. Too often, fun can turn to fear when teens don't feel safe using their favorite apps—this is especially true for Black teens. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 45 percent of 13 to 17 year olds are frequently online and 97 percent use at least one social media platform, including Instagram, Snapchat and others. Within that demographic, a study by The AP-NORC Center concluded that Black teens are the most active on social media and 87 percent of Black teens use video chat to communicate with loved ones compared to 72 percent of white teens.

"I use social media for a multitude of things. First and foremost, I use it to see what my friends are doing and to see if there are any updates in their lives," says Lewis. "I also look on Facebook and Instagram to get inspired by many different things, such as hair videos or do-it-yourself videos—things like that."

Black Teens Use Social Media Differently

While there are so many ways to be connected online, Black teens may not always be getting the protection they need. They're more likely to access social media through their smartphones than their white counterparts when using mobile-friendly apps, like Snapchat and Instagram. For them, social media is a hub for socializing with others. Social media has been a tool for activism for many Black teens, but it's also a den for content that perpetuates racist violence and is linked to higher rates of depression.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Ayana Ali specializes in race-related trauma for Black women, among other concentrations. She explains that when it comes to Black teens and social media, there's always a bigger story. "We know that the research indicates that while Black teens face a greater degree of illness, poverty, and discrimination than that of their white counterparts, they are less likely to seek and to receive treatment, especially mental health treatment," she says.

The correlation between socioeconomic status and race impacts how Black teens access and understand the social media world. "We also know that the degree of social media exposure teens experience is correlated to the degree of negative impact that it has on their mental health, levels of anxiety, and depression," says Ali. "Similarly, Black teens are much more likely to experience PTSD and depression as a result of the watching of viral videos depicting police brutality and what may be considered racialized violence."

Are Major Platforms Missing the Mark?

Following the murder of George Floyd and the beginning of the pandemic, many social media platforms made promises to be held to a higher standard. But it's unclear how many of those platforms have kept that promise.

Kindred by Parents reached out to TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat to find out how they're working to protect Black teens. Though strides are being made, there's still more progress needed. Snapchat was the only platform that released a statement on how it specifically addresses the intersection of being Black and a teen through its policies.

A TikTok spokesperson explained that there are several #BlackTikTok initiatives that were established to uplift Black influencers and Black-owned businesses on the platform, highlighting their work. In TikTok's 2020 "A message to our Black community" it acknowledges the marginalization of Black creators when it comes to having an equal opportunity to post their content, be treated with dignity, and feel protected. This was a particularly vital message in response to the "supposed accident" with the algorithm not displaying #BlackLivesMatter content in 2020.

However, for many TikTok creatives, especially those who aren't white, little has improved since then. On TikTok, Black girl teens specifically find a conflicting combination of community and racism. For example, a popular hashtag that Black teens and women use is #blackgirlcheck, which is captioned with the words, "Be proud of who we are!" Yet, the comment section has become a site for fetishism and racial sexism with people writing comments like "You act white," "I'd love to try brown sugar," and even "Can I touch your hair?" #Blackvoicesheard has a similar track record of having both allyship and antagonism whipped into one.

Instagram created an Equity Team that was "formed to address the challenges that people from marginalized backgrounds may face." Instagram has made mistakes, but it's also been a tool to help with activism. Instagram has been working on ensuring algorithms are fair for Black users. In the past, Black work has been labeled as "sensitive content," which often censors cultural and activist content. Then, that content, if not banned, is kept out of the platform's algorithm. Meanwhile, white creators have the most visibility with their work and freedom to appropriate the work of Black creatives that isn't shared as widely.

Fortunately, Instagram addresses its algorithm bias and the steps that are being taken to prevent it. An Instagram spokesperson shared that their technology has a risk of replicating patterns of human bias, which is why their platform works to reduce those biases through training on the platform. Instagram believes that the key is to evaluate the underlying systems built by our society and eradicate hate with the greatest efficiency possible. The social media site acknowledges the need for "more," but there's still a long road ahead.

Criminal attorney and college professor at UCLA and Antioch University, Natashia Deón, has a Black 16-year-old daughter, and she has concerns about how social media impacts her child and other Black teens. "They are experiencing so many firsts and finding out where they fit in their social hierarchy, which as adults we recognize casually," says Deón."It's a lot and it's overwhelming."

Snapchat, a Favorite of Black Teens

Spokesperson Katie Derkits says that there is no place for racism or discrimination on Snapchat.

"We intentionally designed the app differently than traditional social media platforms to prevent hate speech or abusive content from going viral. Snapchat was built to help people talk to their friends they know in real life, and we don't allow public comments and other features that can facilitate abuse,"wrote Derkits.

Snapchat's Trust & Safety Team works to detect "racist language, including emojis," racial slurs, stereotypes and then respond accordingly to those violating accounts. They never support accounts that perpetuate racism.

Still, Derkits says that supporting Black teens is an ongoing process with room for more improvement when it comes to preventing abuse of all kinds.

Snapchat's approach to protection has yielded promising results. Piper Sandler's 2022 Taking Stock With Teens survey collected data from 10,000 teens throughout 44 states between August 17 and September 16. The survey concluded "more than 1 in 3 teens prefer Snapchat to other social media apps" and 9 out of 10 Black teens reported that they use Snapchat constantly compared to other apps.

Snapchat's unique design is possibly what makes it a safer environment for Black teens. By keeping each user's communication limited to "real friends and loved ones, rather than people they don't know,"as Derkits says, the platform may have a safer model than others. Yet, no app is perfect, and Snapchat has still been used by racist communities.

While there's limited data on how Black teens are impacted by social media, clear dangers have presented themselves to this demographic for years.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Ayana Ali says that Snapchat's policies set an important precedent. "Only Snapchat spoke directly to the question posed specifically in regard to Black teens. While this is a subtle difference, I believe that it centers the company's respective focus on how these teams/policies can and do focus on Black teens specifically," she says.

It's important that companies see Black teens as individuals who face specific issues when logging in. "If the company party line is towed when asked to speak to protections for a singular group and the answer refers to the customer base as if it were a monolith, it is likely that there is not enough of an understanding of the group's unique challenges while using the platform," says Ali. "I would not be uncomfortable in surmising that the channels that cannot be specific in response to this question, Instagram and Tiktok are not specific enough in their seemingly targeted approaches to protecting that group."

One thing remains clear, Black teens use social media the most, but in many ways, their relationships with social media and overall safety on most platforms doesn't get the attention deserved.

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