Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

123P Comparing Young Adult Homeless with Undergraduates: Testing the Digital Divide

Saturday, January 14, 2012
Independence F - I (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
David E. Pollio, PhD, Professor, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Introduction: Early examinations of technology use revealed a “digital divide”--differences in access to and knowledge of the Internet based on socio-economic status, age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the rapid increase in number of users since these early studies, it is a distinct possibility that many of these new users come from populations previously shown to be excluded, particularly among younger populations. One such population is the young adult homeless. For young adult homeless, issues of addiction, transience, and social isolation result in this population being extremely difficult to engage and retain in services. Some recent research indicates that the proportion of young adult homeless accessing technology is relatively high. How their use compares to counterparts could provide important information allowing generalization of knowledge learned from the general population to be used in improving service access for the young adult homeless population. The present study addresses this question by comparing young adult homeless and similarly-aged undergraduates. Specifically, we examined whether young adults at the extreme ends of the digital divide display similar or different use of social networking sites.

Procedure: A total of 303 participants (146 men, 156 women) were included in the analyses. Participants consisted of two samples, 237 undergraduate psychology students from a public university, and 66 individuals recruited from multiservice centers specifically serving young adult homeless in New York and Los Angeles. All participants completed a survey assessing their use of social networking sites, frequency of use, and engagement in the various activities these sites afford its users. The two samples were compared across these constructs. Based on previous research, additional analyses were conducted looking for interactions between gender and undergraduate/homeless group membership.

Results: Overall, results suggest that college students and homeless adults are vastly more similar than they are different in their social network site use. The vast majority (over 90%) of both samples reported actively using similar social networking sites, for similar reasons. However, there were significant differences in that young adult homeless were more likely to use MySpace, and undergraduates Facebook. Young adult homeless were more likely to report posting messages and using blogs, undergraduates were more likely to search for friends on their social network site and report playing games. Homeless women were less likely to send private messages than undergraduate women; and homeless men more likely to post pictures than their undergraduate counterparts

Discussion: Despite limitations, these results challenge the current validity of the “digital divide” concept among young adult populations. It suggests that lessons learned in reaching general young adult populations are likely to have application in reaching more marginalized populations. In making this argument, a number of virtual avenues are opened for providing outreach to the difficult-to-reach young adult homeless, as well as suggesting the need to re-examine the validity of digital divide for other marginalized populations.