Methods: In this cross-sectional study, 100 homeless youth from Los Angeles (n=50) and Denver (n=50) were recruited using comparable research methods and measurement instruments from shelters, drop-in centers and street locations. Participants were 18-24 years old and had spent at least 2 weeks away from home in the month prior to study involvement. Semi-structured retrospective interviews were conducted to assess youth transience level (number of inter-city moves). The Mini International Neuropsychiatry Interview was used to determine level of addiction to alcohol and drugs. Self-report questionnaires queried technology use; including frequency and type of Internet use(e-mail, FaceBook/MySpace, and other), and location from which users gain access. Separate regression models were conducted to predict frequency of Internet use/e-mail by likelihood of addiction (abuse or dependence) and transience (number of moves).
Results: Internet use was ubiquitous in this sample; 91% reported using the Internet at least weekly, with an average usage of 4.6 days/week. A majority of access (54%) was through shelters or programs associated with shelters. Additionally, youth reported using email 3.8- days/week as well as social-networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace 3.8 days/week. The main three uses of such technology were to communicate with friends, family and employers. In the model predicting e-mail access, the model as a whole was significant, with greater transience associated with fewer times checking e-mails per week (t=-2.28, p=.025).
Discussion: The results of this study indicate that Internet use is extremely common for members of this population, which includes many of the high-risk subgroups thought to be most socially and technologically isolated (persons with addiction and highly transient). Although the study is not strictly generalizable, the results have important implications for providing services. Perhaps most importantly, the Internet represents a viable option in providing services to this population. Internet-delivered telehealth interventions represent a potential new avenue for delivering services around risk behaviors using a method that is both welcoming and potentially effective. Given the findings, providing Internet access may represent a novel approach to engaging youth in shelters. More generally, these findings indicate that Internet access may represent an avenue of access to a variety of marginalized youth and young adult populations.