Data Points: Cell Phones, the Internet and Homeless Youth

written by naehblog
November 19, 2013

Today's blog post was written by Thomas Friedlander, Alliance research intern.

How often do you use your cell phone? How often do you use the internet? Chances are that if you’re anything like me, the answers to those questions are “All day, every day.” Guess what? That is true of most homeless youth as well, at least according to surveys of homeless youth in Hollywood, CA.

In one study, 62 percent of youth reported using a cell phone at least once a day, 51 percent several times a day. 62 percent reported owning their own cell phone with an additional 15 percent being able to access a phone from a friend.

Homeless youth are using their phones to stay in touch with family and friends, those from home and those they’ve met while homeless. But, despite large numbers with phones and internet access, surprisingly few—only 17 percent—are using their phones to contact case workers, social workers, or staff at youth serving agencies. This may show a gap in the homeless youth services arena. Agencies should explore the role that cell phones could play in engaging youth in services and housing programs.

Additionally, upon examination of two other studies, two things become abundantly clear:

  • Youth show less substance abuse when connecting with substance-free home-based peers. Conversely, connections to substance-using homeless peers showed higher rates of abuse.
  • Home-based connections show positive effects in combating depression and anxiety. Homeless youth show higher tendencies for mental health problems when connecting with street-based peers.

Home-based peers are the most frequent type of social network connections among homeless youth. Relationships with family and friends from home are the longest lasting and most enduring relationships, in comparison to relationships with homeless peers. A reported 85 percent of homeless youth access the internet once per week. What this shows is that homeless youth are good at making the right connections with the appropriate resources.

Agencies working with homeless youth should investigate the positive role that social networks, the internet, and cell phones can play in creating a supportive network from a youth’s home-based family and friends, even if that youth does not return home.

Simultaneously, agencies should keep in mind that despite the fact that the majority of youth appear to be very “plugged in,” there are still youth who do not have cell phones or who lack internet access. That’s why agencies should still maintain traditional outreach efforts, while incorporating more modern networking strategies.

Photo courtesy of Media Arts Center San Diego Digital Gym