Abstract: Digital Pathways to Wellness through Community Building and Civic Engagement Among Marginalized Youth in Residential Treatment (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Digital Pathways to Wellness through Community Building and Civic Engagement Among Marginalized Youth in Residential Treatment

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 9, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Bethany Good, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background: Internet-based exchange of media (e.g., text, audio, video) also known as information and communication technology (ICT) is central to contemporary society, and particularly important to youth. In 2018, 95% of American youth had access to a smartphone and 45% reported being online ‘almost constantly’. Scholarship has highlighted the importance of ICT for facilitating youth identity development, social connection, and educational competence. Internet access is particularly beneficial for marginalized youth (e.g., LGBTQ2S, and youth with disabilities or mental health challenges), providing pathways to resources and escape from isolation. Youth ICT engagement comes with associated risks (e.g. overuse, cyberbullying, dangerous contacts and sexual exploitation). Literature has highlighted that encountering risk online and offline is unavoidable and often crucial to adolescent development. Additionally, research has shown that general youth populations can mitigate online risk with adequate ICT access, digital skills, and parental mediation. Youth who present with multiple risk factors, however, have been found to encounter more ICT related harm. Youth requiring residential treatment programs (RTPs) are among those with marginalized identities and amplified degrees of risk.

The problem: Referred to as a ‘last resort’ mental health intervention, RTPs serve youth (aged 12–18). Since the 1970’s a shift has occurred among RTPs from fostering isolated, self-contained settings, towards promoting family and community integration. The extant literature on ICT use by youth in RTPs suggests this shift toward integration has not formally incorporated the exponential growth of ICT. Understanding how youth in RTPs engage with ICT can inform how best to ensure they are not excluded from the benefits of ICT access, while simultaneously supporting safety.

Methods/Sample:This qualitative study was guided by a phenomenological approach. McCracken’s Long Interview Method (LIM) was applied to examine perceptions and experiences of ICT use among youth in RTPs. Purposeful sampling was conducted, and subsequently in-depth interviews with 15 youth from four RTPs were carried out. NVivo software was used to execute the LIM data analysis process involving movement from particular to general coding, applying specific and categorical observations, and comparison of themes.

Findings: Youth described how ICT had decreased their experiences of social isolation and mental health stigma and increased their capacity to contend with intersectional marginal identities (e.g., disability, mental health, LGBTQ2S, child welfare guardianship). While obstacles to ICT use in RTPs were discussed, participants reported that following an initial digital disconnect and crisis stabilization, ICT engagement facilitated positive youth developmental pathways toward enacting agency, leadership, and community and civic engagement. Examples included keeping up with world events, remaining connected to the LGBTQ2S gaming community, contributing to mental health recovery blogs, and participating in animal protection advocacy. 

Conclusion: Despite safety and privacy concerns, there was general acceptance that some ICT access within RTPs was reasonable and complementary to program and treatment goals. Moreover, participants described ICT as a means to remain socially conscious and contribute to communities promoting social change. Findings suggest an approach to ICT in RTPs that focuses on pathways to positive youth development, simultaneously encouraging youth toward individual and social change.