Abstract: Being Black and Grieving Online: Exploring the Digital Image-Based Grieving Practices of Black Youth (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Being Black and Grieving Online: Exploring the Digital Image-Based Grieving Practices of Black Youth

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Liberty Ballroom J, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Nathan Aguilar, LCSW, Doctoral Student, Columbia University, NY
Aviv Landau, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Scientist, Columbia University, New York, NY
Kauai Taylor, BA, Fellow, SAFElab, Columbia University, New York, NY
Shana Kleiner, MSW, Research Assistant, Columbia University
Desmond Patton, PhD, MSW, Associate Professor, Columbia University, New York
Background and Purpose:

People from all segments of society are turning to social media to tell their stories and build community. Moreover, teens are using social media at high rates with 90% reporting social media use. Online engagement is no different for youth living in Chicago where decades-old legacies of racist practices such as redlining and segregation have resulted in high rates of violence, grief, and trauma. While the grieving practices within these majority Black neighborhoods have continued to take place privately and publicly they have also expanded to the digital world. Although researchers continue to examine how youth share experiences of everyday life in online spaces, there is a need for research examining online Black grief and how Black youth articulate these experiences using digital images. Drawing on qualitative Twitter data, we examine the role digital images play in the grieving process of Black youth from communities with high rates of violence.


This study utilizes data from a Chicago-based Twitter data set. A team of researchers used an inductive thematic approach to analyze 700 tweets with images (selfies, group photos, screenshots, portraits) from 41 Chicago-based users who self-identify on Twitter as gang-affiliated. Our study received Institutional Review Board approval from Columbia University to conduct this research and abided by internal ethical guidelines. First, two researchers identified 68 tweets with images representing loss. Second, the analysis was conducted by three members of the research team who independently identified themes for an initial coding scheme. Codes were synthesized into an overarching coding scheme and used to code image centered Twitter posts. Inter-rater reliability coefficients were calculated (96% agreement) to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, followed by coding scheme modification. Coding and alterations to the thematic framework were undertaken iteratively to produce a final coding scheme.


Two central themes emerged from image centered Tweets that uncovered different digital mourning practices: 1. Speaking to the departed; and 2. Advocacy

1) Speaking to the departed: Youth are posting directly to individuals who are no longer around. For example: “RIP DAD, LOVE YOU OLD MAN” and a family photo taken during a basketball game. In this post a youth is speaking directly to his father while remembering a significant moment of them together.

2) Advocacy: Youth are campaigning for the release of a family member or friend who is incarcerated. For example: free my guy out the SHU” and a photo of a man followed by a lock emoji. In this post a youth is sharing a photo urging the release of his friend from solitary confinement.

Conclusions and Implications:

Findings from this study parallel previous literature highlighting how Black grief is a collective experience often involving resistance and an acknowledgement of racial harm. Black public mourning, and thus digital mourning, can bring attention to injustices such as over incarceration and also facilitate community and personal healing. Results show how social media allows Black youth to speak directly with the departed enabling them to reflect and celebrate relationships with their online community.