Conversation Of The Week XXXXV: Does Online Discrimination Affect A Person’s Health?

January 28, 2013
Written by D. A. Barber in
Latest News, National Collegiate Dialogue
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New research indicates that social media such as texting and Facebook allows people to discriminate against each other in the form of racial bias and rejection, which can create both physical and mental health problems. Photo Credit:

The Internet, social media, and even smart phones open up new avenues for communication. But new research indicates that over the long-term, social texts and Facebook posts of racial bias and rejection is discrimination that affects our thinking, emotional state and patterns of behavior, as well as our physical and mental health.

"Psychological factors, like discrimination, have been suggested as part of the causal mechanisms that explain how discrimination gets 'under the skin' to affect health," says psychological scientist and senior researcher Wendy Berry Mendes at the University of California, San Francisco. The study is in the current issue of Psychological Science.

Mendes and her colleagues tested whether people reacted differently when rejected during online social interactions from members of their own racial “in-group” or by another racial “out-group.” They predicted that when people experience the perceived discrimination from social rejection from someone of another race, they showed characteristics of “approach-orientation,” including anger, increased blood flow, greater vigilance, and more risk-taking behavior.

Nearly 100 participants selected an online avatar that matched their race and sex, and then hooked up to sensors that monitored cardiovascular activity. The participants chatted online with two "partners," who responded with negative feedback supplied by researchers. Afterward, those rejected, performed tasks that tested their recall compared to an earlier memory test, as well as their vigilance, and risk-taking.

Those rejected by chat partners of a different race showed increased cardiac output, lower vascular resistance, and lower cortisol (a hormone needed to manage stress,) then the participants rejected by same-race partners. They also showed more anger and a greater sensitivity to rewards, leading them to take greater risks during a gambling test when the potential gain was larger. There was also an increase in vigilance from “emotionally negative information.”

Researchers noted that while vigilance helps people detect danger and respond to stress, it also leads to "false alarms" where people perceive bias in vague situations. Such bias toward emotionally negative feedback is over time, linked to a number of medical conditions including anxiety.

altThose experiencing rejection by their own race showed higher cortisol levels, less cardiac output, increased vascular resistance, and impaired memory recall — patterns that when experienced chronically have been linked to accelerated "brain aging," cognitive decline, and early risk for Alzheimer's disease.

"Together, these findings suggest that while social rejection creates strong negative emotions that manifest in changes in the brain and body, the race of the person who rejects you alters the responses to the social rejection," Mendes explains.

Whether the test participants were White or Black, if rejected by a chat partner of a different race, the results were the same, which indicates that being on the receiving end of discrimination is painful regardless of your own racial identity.

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Taryn - Social Media

Submitted by NIAGARA-S2013-26 on

I always knew facebook, or any social media for that matter, caused anxiety, jealousy, or even depression for some people. But I honestly never knew that jealousy, anxiety, or anger had anything to do with what race you are or what race the person is you are talking to on that social media. Social media seems to be an issue in this day in age when it comes to concentration, grades, bullying, etc. and it doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon. People are literally obsessed with facebook, twitter, etc. And then putting the race issue mixed in with all of the social media, people will probably become and start to feel even more seperated, discriminated against, angry, sad, etc. I do have a facebook but it is honestly upsetting that we live in a time where social media is so important when it comes to people's happiness.

Reply comment # 2

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-7 on

I would have to agree that social media is in fact the issues in this day and age. I too do not believe that jealousy, anxiety or anger has anything to do with race. I feel that these feelings are a chosen response. We as humans are innately happy and when something conflicts with this it produces emotions such as anger, jealousy, etc. By no means are there any biological ties to race in my opinion. Racism is learned just like different actions as a child.

Harly's reply

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-20 on

I also agree, racism is learned. Racism is not in our blood. I also like to think that all people are inherently good. You just have to get past their front to see who they really are. Emotions like jealousy, anxiety and anger will always be there. I don't feel that those are chosen responses, they are feelings. Feelings are hard to explain and differ from person to person, not race to race.

Harly - Social Media new

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-20 on

Rejection is not something that many people enjoy. But with new types of formats, there is a number of ways to get rejected. I think what people miss now the the over-use of social media is the human contact factor and "real" relationships. People get a warped idea about others which leads to rejection, anger, discrimination and racism. All media perpetuates these emotions. Getting rejected face to face is a pain some people want to avoid. By using Facebook, rejections hurts a little less because you are looking at a computer, not into the eyes of a person.


Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-16 on

Online, people can be any race or gender they chose. I have several friends on Facebook that use pictures of animals, or a different person even as their picture. I think the internet can be detrimental (such as in this article) or it can be a blessing in the anonymity it provides. I frequent a forum that generally has a negative attitude towards women, and the particular area I like to read is of my future career field, which is male dominated. I like to comment and I don't feel discriminated at all because nobody knows I'm female or white. I personally think with everything, there are consequences, but we should focus on the good things anonymity can bring as well.

I agree that some people

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-37 on

I agree that some people might use pictures like this. Until the end of your post you had done the same thing with your sex. Had you not stated that you were a female then I would not have known.


Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-37 on

I think that most people would like to believe that they would not act differently towards being rejected by someone of a different race, but it is probably something that would happen to most people. It might have to do with the fact that a person might think that they should be accepted by all and when they are rejected by someone of a different race might cause them to think that it is not them, but the person who has rejected them.


Submitted by UCCS-S2013-9 on

Since social media is now so important and prevalent in the lives of many people, it would be interesting to survey and research how much people are still discriminated and rejected by people of both the same and different races while online. I also wonder how much of this happens when a person does not actually know the race of another by just a picture. A lot of people turn to the internet because it is a place where they will be accepted on a higher level than they are in real life. But discrimination does still exist in any form of human interaction whether it is digital or physical.

I think being rejected on any level is difficult for a person to handle. Ostracism and rejection really impact one's self-esteem and self-image.

I agree rejection always hurt

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-38 on

I agree rejection always hurt and may in fact take people time and even therapy sessions to get over it. Someone who is using social media to maybe get through someone may get let down or plainly ignored. This hurts as much if you are confronted the person face-to-face. In the real world you can’t escape discrimination whether its looking in the eyes of someone or online. It’s a sad situation but it happens.

Don't Forget White Privilege

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-15 on

On the internet, one is assumed white, male, heterosexual, etc. (i.e. the standard in our society) until proven otherwise. Due to the anonymity of the internet and the ever present nature of white privilege, anyone not meeting the criteria for 'the standard' will regularly encounter discrimination and rejection, once they reveal their substandard nature. Until, my people (i.e. white people) face the fact that they are over-privileged and begin to pay attention to the reality of other peoples' lives, we will not move past this. We will continue to post jokes with a racial bias on Facebook, ignoring the fact that many of our Facebook friends are not white and may be offended. We will continue to disregard their complaints regarding our insensitivity, claiming that they are just whining. We will continue to blame the victim - a very dangerous epidemic that has swept our world.

Rejection stings, but when you are white, it doesn't stick.


Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-30 on

I have not really thought about that before, thinking or assuming rather, that anyone I may encounter on the internet is white, male, or straight, but I agree with what you are saying. I feel that most of the time people assume they are speaking to someone like them.

Your comment about jokes is interesting too because when someone makes a derogatory joke or comment they are assuming that those listening to them agree with them in the first place. They are assuming that everyone thinks like them.

I feel the most important thing that people with privilege can do is to teach others about what it means. When one is privileged another is oppressed. Do the right thing because none of us can take off our privilege or oppression.

Social Media

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-30 on

As our communities change for example from personal face to face time to internet and social media, unfortunately hatred and rejection will evolve as well. This social shift seems normal as our technology evolves but in environments where people are connected and drawn together it is also a breeding ground for animosity. I think that the anonymity of it makes people more bold and willing to speak in terms that are unkind. Perhaps people also feel there are not consequences for their behavior again due the anonymity but also people feel as though they can say whatever they wish and claim "it's just their opinion" as if that safeguards others from harm.

Re:Social Media

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-13 on

I agree. Being able to interact with people through social media makes people much more bold, and gives people "license" to say whatever they want to because generally speaking there is not much in the way of consequences for their actions. Of course there are exceptions to that now with new cyber bullying laws, but still social media is another way that we can disconnect ourselves from other people and groups, which enables us to say things that we may not have said face to face. As evidenced by individuals committing suicide or hurting themselves or others because of things said to or about them via social media, we have created a whole new avenue for bullying, discrimination, and ultimately personal pain and struggle for many individuals.


Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-41 on

I completely agree that Facebook and other social networking sites have created a new boldness that has not always existed. The things that are said online by many would not be repeated in the physical presence of the other. Technology has been an advantage in some circumstances and a disadvantage in others. In the sense of the lack of physical interaction between people I feel technology has become a hinderance and a problem.

Just ask Erin Gallagher

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-12 on

I agree with your assessment of the effects of technology on our mental and physical well being. In October of 2012 a young Irish girl, Erin Gallagher, committed suicide due to online bullying on Facebook that included racial and sexist comments. I agree with the transformation from face-to-face interaction to virtual interaction has created a change in how hatred and discrimination is used. Unlike physical interaction, cyber hatred and discrimination is a form that can be seen by a larger audience and becomes embedded within the cyber realm for a great amount of time.


Submitted by UCCS-S2013-9 on

You're right, the anonymity of the internet makes it easier for people to react negatively to others in ways they would not do in person. Because the internet makes it so easy to do this, I think we forget just how real a comment can sting, whether it was more easy to say or not.

Online Discrimination

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-41 on

I believe that discrimination be it online or not can affect a persons mental and physical health. Our mental well-being is directly correlated to our physical well-being therefore any stress, anxiety, depression ect. that you may feel as a result of discrimination amongst many other things can definitely cause other health related issues. Insofar as racial bias I agree that coming from an individual of a different racial identity the feelings and physical reactions would likely be more intense than if the person is of the same racial identity. In regards to rejection I suppose I am at a bit of a loss as I am not sure how rejection is considered discrimination. If I reject someone as a result of their racist attitude am I discriminating against them or am I choosing to not partake in their ignorance? I suppose there is no clear cut answer in such sensitive topics.

I agree with your statement.

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-40 on

I agree with your statement. Our well-being is the first sign that something is wrong with us. When we are efffected mentally and physically, our well-being is distorted. Also in the terms of your rejection of someone's racist attitude, I fele as though you are choosing not to be a part of their ignorance. Many people can see that in the wrong way but it is a common issue that people are judged from.

Online discrimination does

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-40 on

Online discrimination does affects people's health mentally and physically. When someone is being discriminated against and takes offense to it, it disturbs them mentally. And when someone is mentally functioning at a wrong rate, their bodies start to react in a negative way as well. It is not a healthy state to be a part of. Being put down in front of potentially hundreds to thougsands of people can be detrimental to anybody. Especially if what is being said is a person's major insecurity and people start to gang up on them. It is just not alright umder and circumstance.


Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-8 on

While reading this, I kept thinking about self-fulfilling prophecies. For example if a child is in school and is always told he is not intelligent then he will eventually believe that himself and therefore act accordingly to the stigma that has been put on him. Similarly, discrimination against a specific race may lead to internalization for that individual and affect them physically and mentally as the article suggests.

Mariah new

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-22 on

This article is very interesting in that many people are more receptive to criticism or rejection from others of the same race, though they are extremely offended by the same sorts of behavior from those of another race. There could be many reasons for this, but the one that comes to mind first is the idea that we don't like to take criticism from others who we feel don't understand our position. What is forgotten is that race does not necessarily have to do with our life experiences and where we stand. A person of a different race could very easily have all the same or similar experiences as you, except they have those experiences from another perspective of which could be very beneficial to you to learn.

The detrimental effects on health are far more extreme than I anticipated. It is no wonder with all of the conflict in the world that many more people are ill today than ever before.

Criticism via Social Media

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-1 on

I agree with you on the notion of it being hard to take criticism from those who we feel don't understand our position. The problem I see with taking criticism via places like Facebook is that the people we are associating with are dehumanized through a computer screen. We are given images and text to define who these people are. Not flesh and blood. All we have are given is the physicality of each individual such as race. How are we to understand our common experiences when we only are given very limited bits of who they are such as what is listed as important on Facebook, name, race, religion, sexual orientation. Are we really ever allowed the privilege of getting to know who people are really through social media?


Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-1 on

This is a fascinating study of how social media has a negative affect not only on psychological issues, but also physical. Something that I have always found problematic with the use of social media and texting is this disconnection with reality and the false safety net the screen creates. People say things on Facebook and texting that they would never say in person or public. This venue gives people a false sense of permission to say what they want without any real consequences. It's easy to reject or insult someone in a chat box than face to face. There is no danger of a physical fight or the guilt in seeing the other person's reaction. On the flip side, as a "reader" rather than the "writer" it is typical to pull in your own feelings and baggage in the words of the writer that may or may not be intentionally there. Text is so often misinterpreted due to lack of hearing tone. I can see where this can have an even more powerful affect on people's psychological and even physical health especially dealing with issues of social rejection and racism.

I think the experimental

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-32 on

I think the experimental question was not really worded right or thought through. We already know that discrimination affects a person's health in face to face interactions, so why would internet interactions be excluded from this? A hurtful comment or form of rejection does not hurt someone less just because you aren't looking them in the eyes when it happens. As mentioned in some previous comments, new websites and technology have given us a new form of bullying. Some people hide behind a gray anonymous face and deliver vicious messages and remarks without any concerns about being caught. If someone is victimized online by an anonymous person, it can really eat them up inside affecting their health even more so than if someone had said it straight to their face.

Yes, I agree with the comment

Submitted by UCCS-S2013-3 on

Yes, I agree with the comment written above. There is a rising number for social network bullying that is happening all the time. Young kids are becoming familiar with facebook, twitter, google plus, etc for interacting with family and friends. They have good intentions, yet the social networking sites offer a catalyst for cyber bullying. What do these kids that are being bullied do about this? Tell their parents-unfortunately, no. Not always. I remember back in the day when Myspace was popular...I would never tell my parents my password because I was afraid that they would see the conversations between my friends and I. Not that they were bad conversations, but sometimes these conversations included bullying. And I didn't want my parents to get the wrong idea that I was being bullied of that I was doing the bullying. Anyway, the point of this comment is that no matter what race, gender, religion you are, the internet provides a catalyst for not just young people, but all people to be subject to bullying.