What kids say when they report abuse through a text

With no hotline specifically designed for children and teens suffering abuse and neglect, some of these kids have been reaching out to a general crisis text line, researchers have found.

In a new study, researchers found that about half of these children and teens use “abuse” or a similar word in their first text, while the other half did not.

Abuse was often disclosed in the texts along with other issues, including hating their family or some mental health issue. Some teens also used language related to suicidal behaviors.

The results suggest one reason why text-based services for reporting child maltreatment may be so valuable, said Scottye Cash, co-author of the study and associate professor of social work at The Ohio State University.

“When it comes to abuse, teens often don’t want to talk about it or other sensitive topics out loud. Given how often teens text and use social media, a text-based crisis service provides teens with a safe way to begin the process of disclosure,” Cash said.

This was the first study of children disclosing maltreatment via texts. She conducted the research with Laura Schwab-Reese of Purdue University and Nitya Kanuri of Yale University. Their results appear online in JMIR mHealth and uHealth.

The researchers did a full content analysis of all 244 conversations to a text-based national crisis service that resulted in a mandatory report of child maltreatment between October 2015 and July 2017.

Mandatory reporters – which include the volunteers at this crisis service – are required by law to notify proper authorities when they learn of cases of child abuse and neglect.

Because this crisis service is anonymous, the children who contacted it had to agree to let the volunteers make such a report. Children who did not agree to disclose their contact information are not included in this study.

The 244 conversations included 24,730 individual text messages – about 101 total for each conversation. The average age of texters was 14.

Results of the content analysis showed that 44 percent of the children disclosed abuse in the first text (“My dads abusing me and I have no escape”). About 13 percent discussed family issues (“I hate my dad”), 10 percent said they were considering suicide or self harm (“I feel extremely alone and I honestly want to die”), and 6 percent were seeking general support (“I need someone to talk to”).

“I give a lot of credit to the volunteers who were able to get these kids to disclose the maltreatment they were experiencing, even when the conversation started somewhere else,” Cash said.

“Maltreatment is related to many negative outcomes, including mental and physical health, so it is important to identify it as soon as possible and try to find ways to address it.”

When the texters first disclosed maltreatment, about 49 percent described an abusive event (“touched me in a place I didn’t want to be touched”), and about 40 percent indicated in general terms that they were being abused (“My parents are abusive”).

Parents were the most common abuser disclosed by texters, followed by stepfathers or mothers’ partners. Physical abuse was the most common form of abuse discussed in the initial abuse disclosure (43 percent), followed by emotional or psychological abuse (34 percent), sexual abuse (15 percent) and neglect (6 percent).

Many texters discussed multiple types of abuse. Most reports of abuse were chronic. In the conversations that discussed how often abuse occurred, about 93 percent of the children said it was recurrent.

Cash noted that the crisis service in this study was available for any kind of mental health issue, not just children suffering abuse or other maltreatment.

“I think if we had a text-based crisis line aimed just for kids and let them know about this resource, there would a huge demand for it,” she said.

“Reading these texts, you really get the sense that these kids are looking for a way to talk about issues that they probably have a hard time verbalizing. This may be the only way they would talk about what is happening to them.”

The study was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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