Q&A: How to Help Youth Make Positive Use of Social Media

A teen girl using a smart phone.

For the last few years, Eric Rice has been studying the largely positive aspects of social networking for at-risk and runaway youth. In interviews with dozens of homeless youth in the Los Angeles area, he has found that tools like cell phones and Facebook can keep runaway young people connected to their peers and family members back home. 

We know youth workers are always looking for ways to link youth to friends and families, when doing so is safe and makes sense for the young person. So we recently asked Rice, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's School of Social Work, to further explain the implications and scope of his findings about social media and runaway youth.

NCFY: How has social media changed the experience of being a homeless or runaway youth?

RICE: Social media and cell phones have really changed the kinds of interactions that runaway and homeless youth can have. Prior to those technologies, youth would leave home and basically their connections were limited to other street youth or to really overworked program staff—social workers, case managers and volunteers. They had few social connections, and most of them involved other high-risk youth who don’t have a lot of resources to get out of street life.

Once social media like Facebook or MySpace became more prevalent at drop-in agencies and libraries, it provided an opportunity for homeless young people to connect with people outside of street life, particularly friends from home with stable lives, and family members they still had good relations with.

NCFY: And what benefits do those relationships have for runaway youth?

RICE: There are two important implications of these relationships. First, they provide street youth with resources around housing and employment that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise. And secondly, they can observe a set of behaviors that isn’t quite so desperate as those around them.

Take our study of runaway and homeless youth substance abuse, for example. We found that when they stay connected to family or home-based peers who weren’t users, homeless young people were less likely to report substance abuse. Whereas the ones who were primarily connecting face-to-face with street peers were much more likely to use.

We’ve found this same result across a whole host of outcomes. In terms of mental health, youth with more connections to street peers report more depression and anxiety. Young people connected to sexual risk-taking peers on the street were more likely to exhibit those behaviors themselves.

NCFY: So what can youth workers take from this?

RICE: We created a policy paper in collaboration with youth workers, and we gave four major recommendations:

One: Try to provide more computer and Internet access in your youth program. Most runaway and homeless youth are dependent on public libraries for access. They need help getting online to maximize the positive benefits of social media.

Two: Encourage computer use for normal adolescent social media use in addition to more traditional things like job searches or finding long-term shelter. Recognize that these have positive benefits.

Three: Bookmark some useful pages on your agency’s computers. Youth don’t always know how to find credible sources. So make it easy for youth to access youth-friendly sites on substance abuse treatment or HIV awareness, for example.

Four: Monitor young people’s computer use with harm reduction in mind. In addition to positive relationships, young people can also use social media to connect to harmful relationships [such as] drug dealers or sexual partners. Low-key monitoring can help staff reduce these risks.

While our research is limited to a largely African-American male adolescent population in Los Angeles, I have colleagues that have done similar work with other populations in San Antonio, Colorado and New York. We can see that this is not an L.A. or male phenomenon so much as a youth phenomenon. It’s part of their daily life.

I don’t think technology is a silver bullet for youth homelessness. But looking at the way it connects youth to resources and positive networks, it can be something that enhances the lives of these young people.

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