Young adults aged 18 to 35, representing half of African American adults in the U.S., are at increased risk for negative mental health, particularly depression, anxiety, and suicide. Because discussions of mental health are highly stigmatized in African American (AA) communities, popular cultural sources that guide societal and peer norms in AA mental health arenas serve as timely resources for examination and further investigation. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to qualitatively explore the use of music and media by African American students at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). An interdisciplnary team from the fields of social work, psychology, and English were involved in the conduct and analysis of this project.
We recruited students (n=14) for one-on-one interviews. In order to meet inclusion criteria, participants needed to 1) be an African American student currently enrolled at UNCW, 2) be aged 18 to 35, and 3) respond “yes” to two questions affirming they listen to music and use social media daily. Interviews lasted approximately an hour and were audiotaped, transcribed, and analyzed by use of open coding using NVivo 12. Those who participated also completed a survey in Qualtrics collecting data on demographics and the following behavioral measures: Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-10), Patient Health Questionnaire for depression (PHQ-9), Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI-21), Healthy-Unhealthy Music Scale (HUMS), and the Social Media Use Integration Scale (SMUIS). These quantitative data were analyzed by use of SPSS 25.
The sample was mostly female (N=9) and ranged in age from 18 to 23. Students’ mean scores indicated mild depressive symptoms (M=6.08, SD=3.30), moderate stress levels (M=18.82, SD=5.38), and low anxiety levels (M=10.69, SD=8.68). Qualitatively, data showed that students connected with a wide range of music genres, including hip hop, pop, Korean pop, R&B, rock, and neo-soul. Several themes emerged such as familial connections (intergenerational, nostalgia), intersectional racial identities, mood effects (mood matching, amplification, and alternation), inspiration/motivation, and aspiration towards goals. In addition, students used social media in various ways, including as a site for voicing and agency, for empowerment of racial identity, and as a vehicle for personal determination and self-validation. Linguistics themes included observation of words versus sonic qualities as a link to historical African American English discourse patterns, and minimizing versus intensifying language.
Conclusions and Implications:
It is critical for social work practitioners to be aware of the impact of music and social media on African American young adults, particularly given the ubiquity and accessibility of digital music and media, and the stigma of AA mental health discussions. We suggest that AA young adults who listen to music and use social media daily are motivated by and through those who produce artistic works in which they see their current and future selves. Our findings allow for the development of culturally relevant psychoeducation and intervention in digital spaces at the macro level, and new therapeutic strategies incorporating these sources of popular culture at the micro and mezzo levels.