Researchers tackle youth loneliness and technology dependence

Published: 19 May 2022

McGill professors receive grant to explore the correlation between technology dependence, youth loneliness and the risk for exploitation.

On May 18, Professors Shanna Williams and Victoria Talwar from the Department of Education and Counselling Psychology were awarded a Knowledge Synthesis Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) valued at $28,821. The project, Youth and Technologies: Computer-Mediated Communication, Maltreatment, and Exploitation of Youth, will investigate antisocial influences, such as maltreatment and exploitation, in the context of youth dependency on technology.

For instance, Barreto et al.’s (2021) survey of youth and adult populations found 40% of youth (i.e., 16-24 years old) reported often feeling lonely, compared to 27% of those 75 years or older. Additional research has highlighted the loneliness experienced by Canadian youth, with this age group reporting even greater experiences with loneliness than other age ranges in adulthood. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation and loneliness experienced by Canadian youth has been further exasperated by the closure of schools and non-essential services and the enactment of physical distancing measures.

Williams and Talwar posit that the increase in youth loneliness is correlated to the rise of dependence on technologies. Though increased computer use has facilitated social connections and academic learning, researchers have identified the potential for antisocial influences and sexual exploitation through this form of communication.

There is concern that these forms of maltreatment of youth increased during specific periods of the COVID-19 pandemic, and previous literature has established a link between social isolation and youth maltreatment. However, reporting is believed to have decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to a lack of contact with typical disclosure recipients such as teachers and doctors. Positively, the use of computer-mediated communication has also increased the prevalence of online support communities for those coping with abuse, and many youths have begun to disclose their experiences in such forums.

The objective of the proposed knowledge synthesis grant is to explore the relation between computer-mediated communication and the prevalence of youth maltreatment and exploitation, and to document the relationship between the use of computer-mediated communication in the disclosure and reporting of youth maltreatment and exploitation. A set of systematic reviews will be conducted to synthesize evidence regarding the use of computer-mediated communications and its link to disclosure and reporting of maltreatment and exploitation by youths, with a particular emphasis the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Results of the study will be used to draft recommendations for youth engagement with technologies in schools, health care settings, and youth protection while mitigating the potential risks of computer-mediated communications.

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