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The use of smartphones and communication technologies with vulnerable youth

Growing popularity in smartphone usage is sweeping the attention of youth across the united states. In the year 2013, Pew internet research indicated a 14% increase in smartphone usage among youth (12-17 year old) compared to 2011, with three out of four youths owning cell phones and nearly half of them (47%) being smartphones. According to a 2015 Pew Research Study, these trends include smartphone consumption among minority youth, with 85% of Black youth having access to smartphones and 71% of Latinx youth (Denby, Gomez, Alford, & Keith, 2016). Increases in youth consumers led to innovative approaches across public health and medical industries who began to develop mobile applications to solve a range of challenges including substance misuse and abuse (Miller, Chih, & Washington, 2016), processing paperless documentation (e.g., Freifeld et al., 2010), general physical wellness (e.g., Youm & Park, 2014), maternal health (e.g., Noordam, Kuepper, Stekelenburg, & Milen, 2011; Smith et al., 2014), treatment of eating disorders (e.g., Ambwanni, Cardi, & Treasure, 2014) smoking cessation (McClure, Tomko, Carpenter, Treiber, & Gray, 2018; e.g., Valdivieso-L.pez et al., 2013), assisting physicians in prescribing medication, diagnosing, and referring clients to local services (Miller, Chih, & Washington, 2016).

Industries focused in human development, and well-being are looking to understand social behavior and thought by either conducting research that utilizes mobile applications to empower individuals, groups, organizations, and communities (Bae, 2019; Buccieri & Molleson, 2015; Denby et al., 2016; Mackrill, Ebsen, & Antczak, 2015; Mackill & Ornboll, 2019; Miller, Chih, & Washington, 2016). This paper will review the recent conceptualization of how technology can be used in the social work field as well as provide information about the development of mobile applications used by social workers with vulnerable youth clients (I.e., homeless youth and those within or transitioning out of foster care). This review offers social workers an overview of technology’s role in improving the life and life-chances of vulnerable youth.

Technology usage among vulnerable youth

Research indicates that similar to any other youth, homeless youth and those involved in the foster care system turn to digital technologies for discovering new information, connecting with peers, building social capital, and finding entertainment (Denby et al., 2016; Lia, Snow, Jiang, & Edwards, 2015; Buccieri & Molleson, 2015).

Californian research identified that 95% of homeless youth access the internet using computers at either public libraries and social service agencies (Buccieri & Molleson, 2015).

Studies found amazingly high rates of smartphone ownership among homeless youth. For instance, a study on the East Coast found that 78% of their sample (homeless youth) possessed a smartphone and half of them obtained the phone as a gift, though 44% purchased the phone themselves (Jennings et al., 2016). A West Coast study found that 62% of homeless youth had a smartphone, 40% reported having a working phone (Tyler & Schmitz, 2017). Furthermore, rates of smartphone ownership among homeless youth in Colorado uncovered that roughly 47% of the youth reported having a smartphone (Harpin, Davis, Low, & Gilroy, 2016). In terms of having working phone plans, 38% of all youth revealed having a month to month contract for their phone, 23% acquired minutes for their phone as required, and the rest of the youth reported not owning a cell telephone (Tyler & Schmitz, 2017).

Buccieri's (2015) research embarked on a project-based adventure with 12 homeless youth to design the SAY application, a smartphone application designed by and for homeless youth. The study not only built capacity for participants but also noted a remarkable level of knowledge about smartphones among homeless youth (Buccieri & Molleson, 2015).

Researchers implementing smartphone technologies are used to support the biopsychosocial wellbeing of young clients. Research topics include ethical and conceptual considerations for application developments purposed to assist youth transitioning out of the foster care system (Miller, Chih, & Washington, 2016), monitoring smoking cessation in young smokers (McClure, Tomko, Carpenter, Treiber, & Gray, 2018), the use of smartphones in establishing social capital and wellbeing (Bae, 2019), empowering homeless youth in project-based activities developing mobile application (Buccieri & Molleson, 2015), measuring environmental risks for low-income urban youth (Roy, 2017), and using smartphone for data collection with homeless youth (Tyler & Schmitz, 2017), and finally, improving upward mobility through community network development t (Heeks, 2010). Karabanow and Naylor (2007) found that homeless youth spend less time engaging the streets when having access to internet-based technologies such as smartphones. Research with 122 homeless youth reported that having a smartphone provided them with a sense of wellbeing and belonging related to sending and receiving messages from peers experiencing similar life circumstances (Tyler & Schmitz, 2017). Additionally, Korean research with more than 3,000 elementary school children reported increases in social capital among peers and family when children own smartphones (Bae, 2019).

Smartphone-based research with vulnerable youth

Mackill & Ornboll emphasizes that smartphone-based social science research to study youth should not disregard the parent’s preferences regarding their child’s use of the smartphone device (2019).

Several studies indicated that on top of providing full parental informed consent, acquiring parental input during the research design stages, or at a minimum, conducting periodic parent check-ins can lead to better youth participation in the research because parents normally hold day-to-day standards on how and when their children use their smartphone devices (Mackill & Ornboll, 2019; Roy, 2017; Bae, 2019).

Denby conducted a research where 39 youth were provided censored smartphones. The study sought to connect foster youth with their social workers and to prevent high-risk associations (connecting with negative peers) via a mobile application, however, censoring smartphone features led to disengagement of the mobile application on behalf of participants.

Another study By Roy (2017), provided low-income, predominantly-minority youth in urban settings with smartphones programmed with ecological momentary assessments (EMA) and location tracking software to better understand how place and environment shape high-risk behavior and thinking. The study found that data points extracted from the participant’s smartphone could lead to the further marginalizing of participants and outlined ethical guidelines for future research as to ensure the protection data, i.e., criminalizing youth(Roy, 2017).

Because a growing number of homeless youth own smartphones, a 2015 study by Buccieri, sought to empower 12 homeless youth (18-23 year old) by developing the SAY application to meet the needs of individuals facing homelessness. Buccieri held biweekly meetings (2 hrs per session) for five weeks structured by the STAR model in a rapid-cycle change approach that involved homeless youth input about the mobile application at every level of development (Buccieri & Molleson, 2015).

Studies report that foster youth have stronger relationships with their caseworkers and are able to access additional supports when using smartphone devices (Denby et al., 2016; Mackill & Ornboll, 2019; Mackill, Ebsen, & Antczak, 2015). A Danish study developed the My Social Worker App to examine how a mobile application improved relational competence between caseworkers and youth involved in the juvenile justice system (Mackill & Ornboll, 2019; Mackill, Ebsen, & Antczak, 2015)

Considerations for Social Workers Using Smartphone Technology with Vulnerable Youth

Studies conducting youth participatory development of smartphone applications for vulnerable youth discovered that youth are more likely to utilize the application when it approximately reflects their reality (Buccieri & Molleson, 2015; Miller, Chih, & Washington, 2016).

Miller (2016) conducted a mixed methods research to conceptualize the top seven features foster youth wished to see in a mobile app to help transition them out of the system. Features for the application were prioritized by youth as listed: (1) Accessibility (easily accessible regardless of zip code); (2) peer connections (anonymous chat rooms for youth and connection to advocacy groups); (3) notifications (news about youth programs and allow social workers to push relevant information to youth); (4) visual layout (include icons, easy to navigate and reflect youth’s aesthetic input); (5) connection to resources (includes a listing of social and educational services including emergency hotlines); (6) tools (folders to store important information, integration with the phone’s calendar application); (7) mentorship guidance (check-in with social worker and attorneys, ability to communicate on the application) (Miller, Chih, & Washington, 2016).

Tyler (2017) conducted a 30-day qualitative research which provided smartphones to 112 homeless youth and offered them emergency resources via the phone. Tyler (2017) indicated that youth who owned smartphones were more likely to leave homelessness because of connection to peers, supports, and information made accessible to them via the phone. Additionally, the study revealed that homeless youth who own smartphones are less likely to use alcohol or drug (Tyler & Schmitz, 2017). Tyler (2017) also noted that post-study, once participants had to return the smartphones, some expressed a desire to keep the devices.

A Danish pilot study assessing youth perspectives on the use of the MySocialWorker App discovered that not every youth took advantage of the application to communicate with their statutory social worker (Mackrill, Ebsen, & Antczak, 2015).

Those who preferred less direct methods of communicating or lacked transportation made better use of smartphone technology to connect with social workers (Mackrill, Ebsen, & Antczak, 2015).

Social workers can implement specific internet based interventions with youth via their smartphone when clients have a working smartphone device with either a data plan or access to a WIFI connection (Buccieri & Molleson, 2015; Tyler & Schmitz, 2017). Alternatively, using SMS (text messaging) to share information with clients with working phone numbers may be sufficient for simpler intervention not requiring internet, data plans, or wifi (Buccieri & Molleson, 2015; Tyler & Schmitz, 2017). Moreover, acquiring parental consent may be necessary when suggesting smartphone-based interventions with underage youth; however, waiving parental consent is a reasonable option when youth are homeless or lack legal guardians (Buccieri & Molleson, 2015; Mackill & Ornboll, 2019; Roy, 2017; Tyler & Schmitz, 2017).

This review illustrates how vulnerable youth (homeless and foster care), just like any other youth, own and rely on smartphones to connect with peers, grow independent, navigate life better, and find entertainment regardless of life circumstances.

Furthermore, because of growing acceptability with smartphones within this population, smartphone-based social science research contributes to discoveries of new information about previously hard to reach populations.

A nascent discovery in the use of mobile applications in the social work practice allows clients in the foster care system or those facing homelessness to access additional resources and find critical services. When using smartphones to conduct social science research, ethical considerations must be enforced to ensure client safety and privacy and prevent further marginalization. Additional research assessing social worker attitudes and perspectives regarding using smartphone applications when working with vulnerable populations is necessary. The following semester is aimed at conducting research assessing the feasibility of using smartphone applications for social workers working with underserved youth.

Will Remigio

Temple University


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