Research Roundup: Online Social Networks May Protect Homeless Youth From Negative Influences

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Two photographs of young ladies typing and reading on smart phones.

For most adolescents, online social networking is another way to talk to the friends and family that they see every day. But for runaway and homeless youth, texting, Facebook and other social media can be important ways to stay in touch with friends and family who are slipping away just when they are most needed.

Researchers are starting to believe that those virtual relationships – if healthy – may exert a powerful positive influence, helping youth to make better decisions and avoid the most harmful aspects of street life. Other research shows that the longer a young person stays on the street, the more risks they tend to take with drugs, unsafe sex and crime. Their chances of suffering from depression and other mental health problems grow quickly. Relationships with other street youth tend to make matters worse.

A series of recent studies from the University of Southern California School of Social Work suggests that youth workers might consider encouraging homeless youth to connect and stay connected to friends and family from home using cell phones and over social media. Such connections, they found, may help youth avoid depression, drug use and HIV.

Good Ties to Home

The mental health study is unique in its finding that when youth maintain relationships with old friends and family via online social networks, they may be protected against the unhealthy influences of street life. The majority of the 136 young people surveyed said that while getting online can be hard, using social media is key to maintaining connections to family and friends.

Using the same sample of homeless youth as the mental health study, the substance use study looked more closely at whether the people to whom homeless youth were connected – both back home and on the street – used drugs. Youth with more connections to non-drug-using home-based peers used drugs less than those with more ties to drug-using homeless peers. The writers suggest that peer-based prevention programs for homeless youth should use social networking to help them stay in touch with good influences outside of their face-to-face networks.

Frank Talk Online

Relationships to home may not be the only way to encourage positive behaviors over social media. A third study found that homeless young people were more willing to talk about HIV prevention on social media if they were recruited by other homeless youth, either face to face, or by being “friended” on Facebook or MySpace. While more research needs to be done to see if prevention efforts using social media actually change behavior, the researchers were encouraged that homeless youth were willing to talk about healthier behavior with their trained homeless peers.

Read the Articles

"Homeless But Connected: The Role of Heterogeneous Social Network Ties and Social Networking Technology in the Mental Health Outcomes of Street-Living Adolescents" (abstract). Community Mental Health Journal, E-pub, 2011.

"Social Networking Technology, Social Network Composition, and Reductions in Substance Use Among Homeless Adolescents." Prevention Science Vol. 12 No. 1, March 2011.

"Mobilizing Homeless Youth for HIV Prevention: A Social Network Analysis of the Acceptability of a Face-to-Face and Online Social Networking Intervention" (abstract). Health Education Research, Vol. 27, No. 2, April 2012.

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