Head-and-shoulders image of a smiling man in a collared shirt.
Stephen Gibson, a Ph.D. candidate in the developmental psychology program at VCU, researches the long-term effects of online racism on the mental health of Black teens. (Contributed photo)

In mind, body and digital souls, VCU doctoral student examines racism through the lenses of adolescence and parenting

Developmental psychology researcher Stephen Gibson explores the intersection of teen mental health, online experiences and parent-child communication.

Share this story

Exploring parental messages to children, the digital landscape and even the workings of the human body, Stephen Gibson is taking an expansive look at racism. With federal grants – and an appreciation of his own upbringing – the Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University hopes his research reveals insights into how today’s generations can navigate a fraught environment.

Gibson, a fifth-year doctoral student in the developmental psychology program in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is nearing completion of his dissertation, which examines the long-term effects of online racism on the mental health of Black teens. He also is working with Fantasy Lozada, Ph.D., and her S.H.I.E.L.D. Lab, which looks at school-, home- and internet-based contexts for emotional development in Black and Brown communities.

The research is personal for Gibson, who is evaluating “how the different manifestations of racism influence parental use of protective strategies that educate and support Black youth around negative racialized experiences.”

“I can think about … how my dad and my mom talked to me about being a Black male and how I should navigate different educational settings or different spaces within the community,” he said. “That has led me to want to understand better how Black parents and caregivers speak to their children.”

In 2019, Gibson received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for his work examining how cultural assets, such as racial identity and coping strategies, protect Black teens, as well as the psychological functioning of young adults after negative racialized experiences. Drawn to Lozada’s work, Gibson came to VCU to investigate how racial messages are transmitted from Black parents to their teens.

He and Lozada are also looking at how such messages are layered. “A Black parent may send a protective message to a Black youth – for example, ‘Don’t be the angry Black kid at school,’” Gibson said. “That message isn’t just a racial message – it has an emotional attachment of that anger. It also gives a social context.”

For his dissertation work, Gibson also received a Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award, administered through the National Institutes of Health, to support his longitudinal research on the consequences of online racism on mental health symptomatology among Black teens. His work is connected to a larger study on digital literacy led by Brendesha Tynes, Ph.D., at the University of Southern California, who collaborates with Lozada. The study encompasses white, Latinx, Asian American and Black adolescents, with Gibson focusing on data reported by Black teens.

“When we talk about online racism, it could be, ‘Someone left a comment under my Instagram post calling me a racial slur.’ That’s easy to identify,” Gibson said. But he also is looking at online comments that youths see in the context of elections and political or social issues – for example, the expression of negative views about the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’m interested in seeing how two cultural assets, like Black teenagers’ racial identity and critical consciousness, can shift their online experience to how they are identifying online racism and how that can protect their mental health,” Gibson said.

His subsample of approximately 550 Black adolescents is a longitudinal study, with data collected in two consecutive years. Gibson is using a holistic approach to exploring Black teens’ online experiences by investigating how his sample groups together by similar experiences of direct and vicarious online racism. He will then examine how Black teens’ cultural awareness shifts their identification of online racism and how these groups of Black teens differ in depression and PTSD symptoms.

The results will provide information on the negative mental health outcomes that can occur due to experiences of online racism in Black teens and, subsequently, highlight the importance of attending to racism via media and digital platforms. 

The federal awards have propelled Gibson’s research progress, including more than a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. He has applied for the NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship, and he has accepted a tenure-track assistant professor position in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“Having external funding has allowed me to focus on my research productivity,” he said of the grants. “They allowed me to focus all of my time on research.”

Gibson nurtured his interest in psychology as an undergraduate at North Carolina Central University, where he played football. An internship with developmental psychologist Makeba Wilbourn, Ph.D., and her Wilbourn Infant Lab at Duke University strengthened his commitment to doctoral studies. Along the way, in 2019, he earned his master’s degree in educational psychology from North Carolina State University under the mentorship of Jessica DeCuir-Gunby, Ph.D.

Gibson said he was drawn to psychology because “the conversations that parents have can be guardrails and a guiding voice of how youth navigate and take information into this world. I became interested in the psychological components of those parental messages and their effects on children and adolescents’ mental health and other outcomes.”

His VCU colleagues embrace his commitment, perspective and research accomplishments.

“For many years in psychology, people would tell you to shy away from research that had to do with your own background or your own self or your own life,” said associate professor Marcia Winter, Ph.D., director of the developmental psychology concentration and co-director of graduate studies for the Department of Psychology. “Stephen is a really compelling example of why that’s really not something to be avoided. I think it’s something to be embraced.”

Lozada noted that Gibson’s impressive grant success speaks to more than his research dedication.

“It also reflects his ability to convey the immediacy and importance of supporting the mental health and wellness of Black youth and families by centering their experiences and voices,” she said.

Lozada also praised Gibson’s mentorship of undergraduate students and research assistants, as well as his presentations at national and regional conferences.

“Stephen contributes to the next generation of African American and Black family researchers,” she said. “His contributions make the science in my lab better and represent a precursor to the great impact that I know Stephen will have on Black adolescent and family research.”