How One Act of Discrimination Can Impact the Lives of College Students

Several past studies have shown that the health of people who are subjected to racial discrimination can be impacted over both the short term and later in life. (For example, see JBHE posts here and here.)

A new study by researchers at the University of Washington show that students subjected to just one incident of racial discrimination can experience negative consequences in their daily lives. Over the course of two academic quarters, the team compared students’ self-reports of unfair treatment to passively tracked changes in daily activities, such as hours slept, steps taken, or time spent on the phone. Participants wore Fitbit Flex 2 devices to track daily activities like time asleep and physical activity. The students also had an app installed on their phones to track location, activity, screen unlocking events, and phone call length. At least twice a week they were surveyed on whether they had experienced any recent acts of discrimination.

On average, students who encountered unfair treatment were more physically active, interacted with their phones more and spent less time in bed on the day of the event. In many cases, the behavior changes lasted into the second day after the discrimination had taken place.

The researchers also found that discrimination is associated with increased depression and loneliness, but less so for people with better social support. “These results help underscore the deep impacts of discrimination on mental health, and the importance of resources like social support in helping to reduce the impact of discrimination in the long term,” said Paula Nurius, a professor in the University of Washington School of Social Work and a co-author of the study.

The study, “Passively-Sensed Behavioral Correlates of Discrimination Events in College Students,” was presented at the recent Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work in Austin, Texas.


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