Pegged as the digital generation, children use technology frequently to communicate with others – including in times of crisis. Instead of having a conversation with a trusted adult when they need support, many minors turn to social media.
But when it comes to verbalizing experiences of maltreatment – neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse – texting a hotline for support could be an invaluable resource for a child, according to a new study.
Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 text support line for those in crisis, offers minors an avenue to needed help, according to the study conducted in March by Scottye Cash, associate professor at Ohio State University’s College of Social Work; Laura Schwab-Reese, assistant professor at Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences; and Nitya Kanuri, a Yale School of Management student.
The study analyzed 244 conversations between minors and Crisis Text Line counselors – with no names attached – that ultimately led to a mandatory report of abuse or neglect. Of those 244 conversations, more than half of the texters disclosed abuse or other family issues in the first message.
“It’s tough to talk about difficult things live,” Cash said. “What texting provides – you’re a little bit removed from having to say it out loud. You don’t have to verbalize it and fear how it’s going to go over in real time.”
Texters most frequently disclosed physical abuse in the first message, doing so in 43.4% of conversations. The frequency of other initial disclosures was: emotional abuse, 34%; sexual abuse, 15.6%; and neglect, 6.1%. Parents were most frequently mentioned as the perpetrators of abuse, the study found.
Texters also commonly used explicit language to identify abuse they were experiencing, Schwab-Reese said, rather than talking around it with what she calls “filler” or “proxy” words.
“I didn’t expect that level of transparency,” she said.
Schwab-Reese said that many children reaching out for support via social media amid maltreatment are describing topics that peers might not be equipped to address.
“People have to be able to think on their feet, tell people they believe them and it’s not their fault that they’re being abused,” Schwab-Reese said. “There’s something particularly special or unique when they’re reaching out to an adult.”
All Crisis Text Line volunteers undergo training before counseling people in crisis. The training is phenomenal, Schwab-Reese said.
Since its launch on Aug. 1, 2013, Crisis Text Line has had nearly 3.5 million conversations with 1.68 million texters, and 106,000 of those texters were minors, according to data provided by Crisis Text Line.
“Texting is private and silent, which allows people to share things they may not be comfortable saying out loud,” Ashley Womble, head of communication for Crisis Text Line, said in an email.
Womble added that 65% of texters said they disclosed something to a Crisis Text Line counselor that they never had told another person.
At Ohio State, Cash works to make more people aware of Crisis Text Line as a resource for those struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, child maltreatment or any other form of crisis.
“I put it in my syllabus. I talk about it in my class. I put it on my own personal Facebook page,” Cash said. “Just getting the word out to say, ‘Hey, this is something you need to know about.’”