There are a total of more than 1.6 million runaway and homeless young people each year.1
The risk of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection is a serious concern for this population, with prevalence rates ranging from 2% to 11%, depending on the urban center under investigation.2–4
Negative peer influences in the social networks of homeless young people have been implicated in their HIV risk-taking behaviors.5–9
Typically, the culture of adolescent homelessness has been described as largely filled with problematic influences, and the risk-taking behaviors of homeless young people have been thoroughly documented.5,8–17
Of particular concern is that engagement with these problematic peers, primarily other homeless young people, has repeatedly been shown to be associated with increased HIV risk for homeless young people.5–9
Most research depicts the social networks of the young homeless population as small, transient, and homogeneous, comprised almost exclusively of other homeless young people.13,18,19
Recently, however, a few studies have begun to acknowledge that the social networks of homeless young people are more complex than previously reported.20–22
Johnson and colleagues found that more than 80% of their sample reported having at least one current network relationship formed prior to their life on the streets.20
Likewise, Rice and colleagues found that 73% of their sample of newly homeless young people (i.e., those homeless for fewer than six months) claimed that most or all of their friends attended school regularly, 24% claimed that most or all of their friends had jobs, and 50% claimed that most or all of their friends got along with their families. Moreover, presence of these pro-social peers reduced HIV risk behaviors over time.21
In a second study, Rice et al. examined young people living on the streets for longer than six months and found that networks containing pro-social peers were associated with a reduction in the likelihood of engaging in sexual risk-taking, while networks containing peers who were engaged in HIV risk-taking behaviors were associated with increased HIV risk-taking behaviors among homeless young people.22
What remains unclear in these studies is which peers were the source of positive influence. Were the pro-social peers other young people living on the street, or were they home-based peers (i.e., relationships formed prior to life on the streets)? Street-based peers have been shown to provide essential emotional and street-survival support,23–25
but can they also provide other positive influences (e.g., a reduction in sex and drug risk behaviors), or are the positive influences reported in adolescent homeless networks21,22
a result of continued engagement with pro-social, home-based peers? Without more sophisticated social network data, it is impossible to fully understand the nature of these pro-social influences.
Access to social networking technology (e.g., the Internet, cellular telephones, and text messaging) may improve the sexual health of homeless young people. There is an emerging body of work that debates the health benefits of Internet access for adolescents in the general population.24–31
For homeless young people, the health benefits of social networking technology are likely to be related to the people with whom they are communicating. Insofar as social networking technology facilitates maintaining contact with pro-social, home-based peers, who have been shown to reinforce healthy sexual behaviors,21,22
the use of social networking technology to communicate with these peers should be associated with healthier sexual behavior.
Given the ubiquity of social networking technology in the lives of adolescents,27–29
it is entirely likely that the young homeless population, though resource poor, will use social networking technologies to maintain their relationships with home-based peers. Indeed, one study of homeless young people in Los Angeles reported that they accessed the Internet an average of 4.4 days each week, and used social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook about 3.3 days each week to connect with friends, family, and employers.32
The purpose of this study was to assess the condom-using behaviors of homeless young people and to explore the associations between condom use and social network characteristics. In particular, this study used condom use among peers as an indicator of pro-social behaviors. Using detailed “ego-centric” network data,33
the study explored how connections to condom-using peers from different social network positions are associated with condom-using behaviors of homeless young people. In particular, this analysis explored differences in home-based vs. street-based network ties and face-to-face ties vs. ties maintained through social networking technologies. As such, this study provides unique insights into which peers provide support for condom use and how social networking technology may help maintain pro-social connections, lending new insights to possible HIV-prevention strategies for the young homeless population.