Youth and technologies: Computer-mediated communication, maltreatment and exploitation of youth

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About the project

Recent research has found that youth experience loneliness at a higher rate than other adult populations. Within the context of loneliness, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused the enactment of physical-distancing measures. As a result, many youth have experienced increased social isolation. Concurrent to this increase in youth loneliness is a rising dependence on technologies (i.e., computer-mediated communication) to support social connections (i.e., peer relations, extended families). Although computer-mediated communication (i.e., text messages, social media applications) has provided youth with the opportunity to engage socially, the potential for antisocial influences such as maltreatment and online exploitation (i.e., sexual communication and requests of youth by adults) through this form of communication has also become a great concern.

A scoping review of the literature was conducted to examine how youth’s use of computer-mediated communication has (1) impacted upon youth’s disclosure and reporting of maltreatment and exploitation, (2) impacted upon youth’s disclosure of maltreatment and exploitation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Three internet search engines (i.e., PsycInfo, Scopus, MedLine) were searched for articles published between January 2010 and January 2022. Of 1,365 articles found, 11 met the inclusion criteria of examining maltreatment disclosures made by youths online prior to COVID-19, however no articles met the inclusion criteria of examining maltreatment disclosures made by youth during COVID-19.

Key findings

The findings below can be used by researchers, policy makers and knowledge users when considering best practices in supporting child witnesses who are making disclosures online or through computer-mediated communications:

  • Technology, specifically text messages and social media platforms, has provided relatively safe opportunities for youths to disclose and discuss witnessed maltreatment on the internet.
    • Specifically, trends such as the hashtag “#metoo” greatly increased the opportunity to read and make disclosures about witnessed events.
  • Youth are actively seeking out and prefer disclosing witnessed events through computer-mediated communications compared to formal services (i.e., child protection services).
  • Research examining disclosures of maltreatment made by youths online is extremely limited. Despite the increased reliance on technologies and computer-mediated communication, disclosing maltreatment or witnessed events through this form of communication is rarely studied.
    • Importantly, most research examines conversations in established disclosure agencies (e.g., crisis text-line, help phone line). Those examining disclosure on social media are rare and difficult to conduct due to the anonymity of the internet.
  • No articles to date investigated online disclosures of maltreatment made by youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a critical gap in literature given the increased rates of child maltreatment and the increased dependence on computer-mediated communications during the pandemic.
    • Additional research is necessary, particularly in understanding the rate of disclosures and the population making online disclosures during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Policy implications

  • Given the increasing rate of youth loneliness, unreported instances of child maltreatment and disclosures made online by youth and child witnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that future research examine evidence-based protocols to support youth who disclose witnessed maltreatment through computer-mediated communications.
  • It is important to raise awareness of youth disclosures made through computer-mediated communications and to educate parents, teachers and other professionals about disclosures made in this format. Children and youth often turn to computer-mediated communications due to mistrust or being unaware of formal systems.
  • Better research protocols and practical guidelines need to be developed both to examine youth disclosure online (e.g., through social media platforms) and to help make such disclosure a positive experience for young witnesses.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Dr. Shanna Williams, assistant professor, Child Interviewing and Witness Lab, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, McGill University:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Employment and Social Development Canada or the Government of Canada.

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