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The effectiveness of online help depends a lot on the source of help or information a young person is accessing. It is important to provide online help, so that good help is available when it is sought. Find out why young people seek online help, identify the risks, and get pointers on referring young people to good sources of support.

This will help you to:

  • understand why young people seek online help
  • know about the benefits and risks of online help
  • assist young people to seek quality help online.
Girl in green jacket on phone

Why it’s important to provide online help

Ensuring that there are good quality resources online is extremely important, and equally important that these are accessible and user-friendly. Often, young people will ask un-moderated social networks or forums, by posting a question as their Facebook status, posting a question on Yahoo Answers etc.

Why young people seek online help

These platforms may be chosen as the location for the preferred help-seeking action because of some pretty appealing potential benefits. Posting on forums (such as the ReachOut Forums) can be anonymous, which lowers the risk of compromising the young person's public image. Alternatively, if it is not anonymous (i.e. a Facebook post) generally neither are the replies, so they can give extra weight to the point of view of the people they trust or who know them best.

The answers received are potentially almost instantaneous, unlike making an appointment with a professional or doing their own research into the subject. In addition, even in anonymous forums, the answers would be coming from perceived peers, who may be more trusted than professionals or textbooks, or considered to have answers that are more relevant or appropriate to that person.

Risks in seeking online help

However, just as there are when seeking help from peers offline, there are also significant risks online. Firstly, the answers may be inaccurate, unhealthy or insensitive. The anonymity and lack of a personal relationship between the poster and the respondent can result in unexpected bullying, mocking, or "trolling" - deliberate bad behaviour from the people who reply. The unhelpfulness of the answers may deter the young person from seeking further help. The risk of providing sensitive information online is also that it may become abused, or become public knowledge when the user didn't want it to be.

While some young people do get very good peer support online some of the time, it very much depends on where the young person is looking for that support as to how helpful it is. Even if more supportive or accurate resources and communities exist online for young people to improve their health and wellbeing, they must be easily found and used by young people or they will be underutilised.

Health professionals need to play a role in ensuring that when young people go online looking for information, they find credible resources, and that these resources are accessible and user-friendly.

How to assist young people