Being a typical teenager on Facebook is hard, but the repercussions of a beer-soaked photo or an overshare-y status update seem trivial compared to the things kids in the foster care system have to worry about. Using their real name, posting pictures at distinct locations or even just listing where they go to school — harmless information, for most of us — can make them traceable by estranged family members. Since staying away from social media entirely isn't a realistic (or healthy) solution for an already isolated community of kids, some researchers are looking for a compromise.
“Their life isn’t like everybody else. They have many more considerations and personal threats they need to consider that most teens don’t have to worry about,” Dale Fitch, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri, told me. Fitch's latest research, published in the Journal of Technology in Human Services, looks to develop situation-specific policies about privacy and disclosure with foster care youths.
Facebook's inadvertent undermining of the foster care system was always something on the horizon, says Fitch, but it wasn't until recently that researchers started thinking about this issue seriously. At a child welfare and technology conference last year, a panel of teenagers in the foster care system talked about how the tendency was for agencies to restrict their social media use completely, which was pretty much ineffective as they found a way to get online anyway.
"The notion that you can control and that you should control these children differently seems to me kind of getting away from what we’re trying to achieve with foster care kids — which is normalcy," Dan Heimpel, a journalist and founder of Fostering Media Connections told me."Creating barriers to what other kids have complete access to is not a good thing."
Kids in foster care typically don’t have much control over their lives, so Facebook is often the one thing they do get to control. For many teenagers, internet life is real life, so you could see how isolating it'd be to restrict these kids from something as vital to their normalcy as Facebook. In addition, it has a particular attraction for kids that are moving constantly, offering a way to instantly find new friends and keep in touch with old ones. Instead of cutting them off completely, Fitch suggests using pseudonyms, avoiding geographic identifiers or creating two profiles — one public and one private (despite Facebook policy against this) — depending on each kids' situation.
But for those that work directly with the foster teens, the problem is as much about the foster care system's inability to integrate social media and technology into a longstanding (and possibly outdated) system. "In general, when you’re dealing with organizations that work with foster care youths, most are behind in terms of their use of new mediums," Theo Fowles, the social media coordinator of the California Youth Connection, told me. “They’re behind because there’s not a clear way to implement the social media within the systems in place."
For instance, youths that have to check in with a social worker at a certain time could do this through video chats or real-time, private location apps — imagine a privacy-centric FourSquare — but Fowles says these things haven’t been implemented in a way that is effective. Probably because weeding through a zillion new ways to use social media is low on the list of priorities for social workers, especially when compared to finding these kids a family. But establishing guidelines for the foster youths wouldn't necessarily be a complicated ordeal. Both Heimpel and Fowles agree that a set of recommendations about how to talk to children about the information they're sharing and with whom is probably enough.
"Foster youth should be trained to create profiles that not only protect them but allow them to express themselves," he told me. "Maybe they’re not on Facebook but they're on Tumblr. Maybe they're not posting locations on Foursquare but they're tweeting what they think on Twitter."
Embracing some kind of social media could be beneficial for both the youth in foster care and the system as a whole; in doing so we'll learn a lot more about the life of these youths, says Fitch. "Are they really connected with other people? What type of connections are they trying to make?” he told me. “Youth in foster care like other youth, they just want to be connected and supported socially — it's just a little more complicated for them."