How Can Programs Use Mobile Phones and Social Media to Serve Homeless Youth?

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A young person sitting on a park bench checks their phone.

Mobile Phone and Social Media Use of Homeless Youth in Denver, Colorado” (abstract). Scott Harpin, Jillian Davis, Hana Low, and Christine Gilroy. Journal of Community Health Nursing, Vol. 33, No. 2 (April 2016).

What it’s about: Harpin and his colleagues explored mobile phone and social media use among runaway and homeless youth living in one of four situations: in a shelter, on the street, camping, or in a house/apartment. Researchers surveyed 181 youth at Urban Peak, a runaway and homeless youth service provider based in Denver. Using iPads or desktop computers, youth answered surveys containing 66 questions, including whether they owned a cell phone or accessed social media sites.

Why read it: Compared to their peers with stable housing, runaway and homeless youth experience higher rates of negative health outcomes such as mental illness, substance use disorders, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Previous studies indicate that most homeless youth use Facebook and that mobile health apps may contribute to positive behavior changes among youth in general. This study seeks to give health and social services providers additional information about homeless young people's mobile phone and social media habits and how programs can use those channels to provide health education, outreach, and support.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Harpin et al. found that nearly half of youth surveyed (46.7%) owned a mobile phone, with nearly two-thirds (64.6%) of those who had phones owning smartphones. Cell phone and smartphone ownership did not vary significantly based on one’s living situation. Most participants used social media, with 71.8% regularly using Facebook. By contrast, only 12.2% used Twitter and less than 10% used other social media platforms. Youth living in a house or apartment were more likely to use social and mobile wireless internet regularly than those living on the streets.

The authors predict that mobile phone and social media use among runaway and homeless youth will continue to increase, a trend that can help young people build and maintain social connections. Programs can adapt cell phone and social media technology to make interventions more youth-centered, the authors write, such as letting youth reschedule appointments online or use apps that promote desired behavior changes like giving up smoking.

Harpin et al. recommend that frontline workers serving runaway and homeless youth familiarize themselves with social media technologies and how they can be used to educate and manage young people's care. More research is needed, they write, to understand how runaway and homeless youth use Facebook and what types of social media health messaging might be most effective.

Additional references: Learn more about homeless youth and social media use in the NCFY library.

Learn more about using social media in social service programs.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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