Troubled youth find an open ear online

Monday, August 1, 2005 Updated at 9:18 AM EDT
From Monday’s Globe and Mail

A closeted teenage bisexual, EmotionalRollerCoaster is clearly tormented. Not only does he “sometimez” hate himself, he despises gays.

“i want to be normall . . . have a wife . . . lotz of children . . . but wat can i say . . . i love men,” he wrote, using shorthand common among young computer users.

The 16-year-old sought help in a June posting on Kids Help Phone’s anonymous on-line counselling service. Two days later, a counsellor urged him to find someone to turn to for support.

“It is OK to be confused, and it makes me sad that you say you hate yourself. You are going through a tough time learning about all of who you are and it’s normal for you to feel uncomfortable about your sexuality right now,” counsellor k.a. wrote.


While teenagers have long used the Internet as a social meeting ground, they are increasingly going on-line for professional help for their most personal of problems.

“Kids have grown up in a world of technology and . . . it’s just a very comfortable format for them. It’s like telephoning used to be,” said Victor Montgomery, who is studying on-line counselling for his doctorate in social work at the University of Toronto.

When it began in 1989, Kids Help Phone was a national crisis telephone service for troubled and abused youth. Last year, the organization enhanced its website to allow youths using aliases to submit questions to trained counsellors. The format is similar to e-mail, but the exchanges are publicly available and each is viewed an average of 33 times.

Since then, interest in the on-line service, believed to be the only one of its kind for Canadian youth, has exploded, and postings have overtaken phone calls. In May, the website received 24,016 postings, an average of 775 a day. By contrast, there were 13,655 calls, or 440 a day.

“This is, I think, the evolution,” said Belinda Marchese, Kids Help Phone’s director of counselling. “We’re creating as we go along.”

However, Hamilton social worker Gary Direnfeld said text-only counselling has inherent limitations that face-to-face therapy does not.

“There’s only so much information that can be conveyed to the counsellor and, therefore, the counsellor’s replies, by necessity, will have to be somewhat general because they will never know, on the basis of 100 or a couple hundred words that a child or teenager may write, the full story,” he said.

“We lose other sources of data. . . . We don’t hear the tone of voice with e-mail. We don’t see the body position. So we lose some of these other cues.”

According to a Kids Help Phone report released in April, on-line clients are younger than phone users and more girls than boys use the website. Postings tend to focus on more serious issues — such as depression, suicide and sexual abuse — and there is a “growing trend” of youngsters who cut and burn themselves.

Many young people say they have never told anyone about their problems, and the report argues the website is a vital outlet for those who would not get help otherwise.

“The telephone revolutionized young people’s access to services largely due to the safety and anonymity this medium afforded its users. The Web seems to create an even greater sense of security for some youth,” the report says.

However, the website does not offer real-time on-line chats, also known as instant messaging, which observers say poorly serves young people with urgent problems. As well, it can take days for counsellors to respond.

Recently, for example, HateMe posted a message alleging abuse at the hands of her mother.

“. . . I thought I should tell someone before I die why. I can’t breathe. I can’t get enough air. So I’m planning on killing myself. No one cares. No one will care once I’m gone either,” she wrote.

Three days later, a counsellor responded to her posting.

On average, Kids Help Phone, which relies on corporate and individual donations, takes 72 hours to reply to Web postings, although the wait can stretch to six days. Once a week, it addresses the backlog by closing the site to new messages for 48 hours. (Young people are always encouraged to call the 24-hour anonymous telephone line.)

The service says that with more money, it would reduce Web response times to 24 hours and might consider adding instant messaging. “We know we need to get to kids sooner,” Ms. Marchese said.

Youngsters’ interest in on-line counselling has made those who train the professionals to help them keenly aware that current approaches are woefully outdated.

“This is moving so fast, and the implications are so profound, that we just have to put more concerted effort into it,” said Jim Barber, U of T’s dean of social work. “I feel like the first thing is to wake everybody up to the fact that it’s happening.”

For therapists trained in face-to-face interaction (or “f2f” in computer speak), on-line counselling involves a stark new language of helping. Beneath the error-ridden writings of youngsters, there are clues in pseudonyms, punctuation and spacing.

“It’s a bit like being a foreign missionary and going into a new culture and it all just sounds like grunts and groans and unfamiliar gestures,” said Dr. Barber, who has studied phone counselling and suicidal callers. “Gradually you work out that these are very elaborate sentences and ideas and emotions. . . . So it seems to me the challenge is the same, but it’s very much a moving target.”

Dr. Barber, who has been in contact with the U of T linguistics and information sciences departments about the issue, foresees a day when students are trained in on-line communication and tested on their ability to quickly understand and reply to teens’ computer-speak.

“We’re going to have to revolutionize our curriculum. It’s a huge challenge for us. It means that our students and our faculty are going to acquire a whole new set of skills.”

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