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HCDE study looks at online communities for youth transitioning out of foster care

Leah Pistorius
February 22, 2022

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A new study by HCDE researchers is aimed at supporting the transition out of foster care by understanding what former foster youth are connecting about online.

For youth in foster care, the period of transitioning to independent adulthood can be a difficult experience in navigating new challenges, often without the support of a guardian. Online communities are one way young adults who had previously been in the foster care system are coming together to share assistance, provide advice, or commiserate about shared experiences. 

John Fowler, a PhD student in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering, has experience working with foster youth as a tutor at an organization called Treehouse, and as a graduate research assistant in the UW School of Social Work. He wanted to know what topics former foster youth are sharing online, and how that matches up with the traditional social work support provided in the transition to adulthood.

Fowler focused a study on a Reddit community for people who have spent time in the foster care system. With HCDE Professors Mark Zachry and David McDonald, and students in an HCDE Directed Research Group, he examined posts from the first year of the community's existence. The team coded each of the posts based on how the posters identified themselves, what topics they discussed in the posts, and the sentiment and types of speech found in the posts. They categorized the topics either to one of eight domains of importance to the transition to adulthood identified by a prominent social work researcher, or as a new topic outside of those eight domains.

The researchers found alignment with topics that social work researchers traditionally focus on, including housing, education, and employment. But they also found new topics missing from the social work literature about transitioning out of foster care. For example, in the online community, transitional youth also talked about identity factors, how they are represented in the media, how they spend open time during the holidays, and their interpersonal relationships. "These topics outside of the traditional social work literature more completely round out the human experience of these individuals in transition," Fowler said. "I hope future research in this area will explore why former foster youth seek online platforms to have these conversations, as well as how effective the online platforms are in safely and securely facilitating their needs."

The researchers published their findings in the January 2022 issue of the Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction. Read the full paper, Fostering Communication: Characterizing the Concerns of Former Foster Youth in an Online Community.