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How videos of police brutality can traumatize kids and teenagers

They’re harmful to the mental health of Black and Latinx adolescents and teenagers

A protester holds up their homemade sign that says, “Say Her Name” while holding her iphone to record a speaker during a protest at Trump Tower. This was part of the Black Womxn’s Empowerment March that started at Trump Tower and marched to Gracie Mansion. Protesters continue taking to the streets across America and around the world after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer Derek Chauvin that was kneeling on his neck during for eight minutes, was caught on video and went viral. During his arrest as Floyd pleaded, “I Can’t Breathe”.
Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

The volume of video footage taken at protests against police brutality over the past few months means images of cops attacking civilians are never far away. While the videos offer consistent, overwhelming evidence of the brutality the protestors are fighting against, they’re also extremely difficult to watch. As it happens, they can cause real damage to the mental health of viewers: repeatedly seeing images of violence can cause trauma, research shows, and that hurt can linger.

For Black and Latinx adolescents, for example, exposure to videos of police killings is linked with symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, a study found.

“We need these videos. These videos are going to change the world,” says Brendesha Tynes, who’s the director of the Center for Empowered Learning and Development with Technology at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and the lead researcher on the study. But they hurt. “It’s this difficult balance of needing the videos, but also protecting your own mental health.”

Tynes talked to The Verge about her research on the trauma these videos cause kids and teenagers, and her search for ways to protect them. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to pursue this research?

At the center I direct, the mission is to center the lives of people of color — their history, their culture, their development. We decided to do this study because, anecdotally, I’d talk with my friends about how hard it is to see these videos. And if I, the director of a whole center on this, was having trouble coping, then of course kids were having these challenges.

What did you find, and were you surprised by the results?

We were able to use a nationally representative sample of 11 to 19 year old Black and Latinx participants. We were able to show that viewing viral videos of police killings, beatings, and arrests — and seeing images of immigrants in cages — was associated with symptoms of depression and PTSD. We kept seeing the same things, even with older groups, up through people who were 24 years old.

I sort of expected to see the associations, just because I talked to people and consistently heard that people were having trouble processing these videos. It wasn’t surprising to see that, but it was heartbreaking to know for sure that what we suspected to be true was actually happening.

Why is it important to understand how these videos impact kids and teenagers, specifically?

Understanding how these videos affect adolescents and teenagers is really important. That second decade of life is really when people start to question who they are, on a number of different dimensions, in terms of their occupation, their religious identity, and who they want to become. They’re asking those questions, and they have more of an ability to think more abstractly and in more complex ways about their identity. The material that they’re exposed to, the people, the teachers, their peers — all of that is significant as they start to try and answer that question.

These sorts of videos, and the trauma they can cause, can make these kids feel worse about their racial identity, and make them internalize some of that dehumanization.

Are there ways to limit the harm these videos can do to kids in this age group?

Having a positive racial identity can be a buffer against the harmful effects of these videos. We want kids to have a full and complete understanding of the contribution that Black people made to this country, and to know that the myths that question Black people’s intelligence are wrong, and so on. That can counter some of these racist messages. And when people have that information, and feel like they have a sense of control over what’s happening — even if it’s just by educating their friends on Instagram — they can fight back.

I’m working on research about that now. For about a year, I’ve been working on an app that will help kids build that kind of toolkit. We’re hoping to show that being armed with this toolkit will protect them from some of the harm these videos can do.

These videos are always hard to watch. What are the signs that something more serious could be going on, emotionally, while you’re watching them, and what can people do about it?

If you or your children have feel constantly reminded of the videos, even when you’re not watching them, or a hyper-arousal, where you feel like you have to be on guard, that’s a concern. Or if you’re feeling nervousness, anxiousness, or emotional numbness, and you’re having these feelings consistently, for longer than a month.

Watch your feelings. Notice if you have crying spells, or if you’re feeling lonely, or hopeless about the future. Watch how you feel over time. If you feel overwhelmed, be sure to talk to your parents, or talk with people in your community, and share your feelings. There’s a stigma for some communities around seeking mental health services, but we’re at a point where we can’t afford to have the stigma.