Purdue Study Finds Children Are Using Text Crisis Lines To Report Abuse

Mar 26, 2019

The study looked at text messages sent to a crisis communications system.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Children are reaching out to text-based crisis communication hotlines to seek help for mental illness. But a Purdue University study finds they’re also using them as a method to report abuse.

When an adult who works with children suspects abuse is taking place, they’re required to report it to the police or Child Protective Services. It’s called mandatory reporting. But for crisis lines, the process is different.

“You don’t actually know who the child is, which complicates mandatory reporting,” says Laura Schwab-Reese, an assistant professor of health and kinesiology at Purdue. “Basically, that means that the child has to tell the crisis counselor who they are.”

Schwab-Reese says they used the messages that triggered a mandatory report in their study. The messages were scrubbed of identifying information, but they still included general information like gender or age.

Schwab-Reese says kids ages 13 to 15 were the most likely to send a text message. She says that could be because they have easy access to cell phones, but there are other factors.

“So school teachers, doctors, those folks tend to report younger kids through mandatory report hotlines more,” she says. “But by adolescence, kids are less recognized.”

The study used text messages sent to one such system from kids between the ages of seven and 17.

Schwab-Reese says the team expected to find children discussing depression or anxiety first, and then mentioning abuse later. Instead, she says the children often brought abuse up right away.

“We found that almost all of these kids were actually texting in to talk about their abuse,” she says.

Schwab-Reese says children talk about their experiences in a more direct way than adults, explicitly describing alleged abuses. And she says for most of the kids they studied, this wasn’t their first time seeking help.

“Many of these kids had reached out to someone in their day-to-day life, so a teacher or a police officer, and those people weren’t able to help them,” Schwab-Reese says. “And so that is part of why they were reaching out to the crisis counselor.”

The study found more than half of the messagers spoke about abuse or family issues in the first text message.

Schwab-Reese says the study is the first in a series examining the ways children interact with social media.