U.S. Minority Homeless Youth’s Access to and Use of Mobile Phones: Implications for mHealth Intervention Design

Few interventions for homeless youth have leveraged the potential of mHealth technologies, in part because of the limited data on phone behaviors, perceptions, and intervention preferences among youth experiencing homelessness. This study conducted 9 focus groups and 41 individual structured interviews also with homeless youth in underserved communities in Baltimore and Washington, DC, to ascertain how youth perceived their mobile phone, acquired and maintained mobile services over time, and thought mHealth programs for this population should be designed. The study also measured phone use, functionality, source, duration of ownership, and reasons for changing phones or numbers.

Results showed that mobile coverage was high, as most youth self-purchased phones or received gift payments from others. Maintaining mobile connectivity was often challenging because of financial constraints and interpersonal conflict. Youth valued phones to access social support but used several tactics to avoid perceived negative consequences of phone ownership, such as harassment, theft, or relational disputes. Youth most preferred mHealth content relating to sexual, reproductive, and mental health provided that mobile communication was confidential, empowering, and integrated with other digital media. Integrating hidden phones, financial support, and safety management may improve homeless youth’s access to and engagement with mHealth strategies over time.

Publication Date: 
In press
Journal Name: 
Journal of Health Communication
United States