Infographic: Social Media, Technology and BC Street-Involved Youth

University of Victoria
January 20, 2016

Rapidly changing technologies are challenging widely held assumptions about who goes on-line. Although homeless populations and other marginalized groups were framed in the past as the technology “have-nots,” the new digital reality is more complex. Recent research shows street-involved youth’s use of cell phones and computers is similar to use by housed youth. Although much of the research is from the US, my own experience and those of others who work with street-involved youth across Canadian cities confirms that street-involved youth are “digital natives” – growing up in environments where computers and cell phones are present in some form.

This infographic shows data from a 2014 survey I conducted with 135 street-involved youth aged 15-24 in three British Columbia, Canada communities: Prince George, Vancouver and Victoria. This research demonstrates that street-involved youth’s use of digital technology and social networking sites is approaching the ubiquitous and persistent use by their housed peers. The vast majority of street-involved youth are using Facebook to stay connected (94%) and they are negotiating physical space and social relationships to have on-line access through friends, public libraries and drop in centers. While cell phones have become a vital communication and entertainment device, their ownership is transitory and fractured: some currently owned phones had no minutes (29%) or were broken (17%) while 56% of youth surveyed had two or more cell phones in the year and 37% carry debts to previous cell phone providers. The social inequities that bring youth to the complex and risk-filled world of the street exclude them from integral parts of society as different and outside the norm. This exploratory research suggests how street-involved youths’ online expression and communication may be a key means by which they negotiate and, temporarily, transcend the challenges of their daily lives, finding small ways towards social inclusion. They stay in touch and make plans with friends and family, search for resources and information, including health information, housing and work and find ways to create and entertain themselves and others with music, photos and videos.

This project would not have been possible without the support of Prof. Lisa Mitchell (Anthropology, UVic) and funds from SSHRC, guidance and suggestions from More Than One Street and CARBC and the enthusiasm and cooperation of the community agencies and youth in all three BC communities.

Marion Selfridge, MSW, is a fourth year PhD student in the Social Dimensions of Health program at the University of Victoria. Her dissertation research focuses on street-involved youth’s use of social media to deal with grief and loss. For 5 years Marion was a medical social worker at the Victoria Youth Clinic, a drop in clinic for youth that provides food, access to resources and harm-reduction medical care. She has worked with many youth, including youth who, for a variety of reasons, live close to or on the streets. The life stories that they have been so generous in sharing with her have inspired her to come back to school to make sense of how youth end up marginalized and in severe poverty, how they care for themselves and each other. Presently she works as a research assistant on Lisa Mitchell’s collaborative research project called More Than One Street that foregrounds the experiential knowledge of youth who know the street in research and dissemination. She also works on EQUIP, a UBC nursing project that is focused on bettering primary health care for populations often considered marginalized and as a study coordinator on HIV drug trials through the Cool Aid Community Health Centre. She teaches dance to stay sane and get through grad school.

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