Foster parents have a lot of challenges, from giving often-troubled teens a roof over their heads to helping them with behavioral or emotional struggles related to neglect, physical or sexual abuse. But a new University of Central Florida study shows foster parents also have to be extra vigilant about their teens’ access to the Internet.

According to the recently published study, researchers found that teens in foster care are more likely to encounter dangerous people online, putting them at a higher risk than other teen populations. Many of these vulnerable situations lead to rape, sex trafficking and other abuse.

The study, led by a third-year doctoral candidate in engineering and computer science, was published during the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – the most prestigious conference in the field of study.

“As a parent, I am passionate about ensuring the online safety of our youth,” says Karla Badillo-Urquiola ’14 ’15MS who worked with her doctoral advisor, computer science Assistant Professor Pamela Wisniewski, on the study. “Coming from a tumultuous childhood, I want to make sure that we don’t unintentionally leave out those who are most vulnerable to serious online risks, such as foster youth. It is important for these teens to have opportunities and that we as researchers commit resources to helping them.”

The pair interviewed 29 foster parents of teens in the U.S. child welfare system. The researchers found that more than half of the foster teens in their sample encountered high-risk situations, which resulted in serious consequences. The foster parents also reported being at a loss for how to balance the online safety of their teens with providing access to technology and still engendering positive relationships.

Foster parents provide homes for more than 400,000 children placed into foster care each year. Many foster youth experience trauma before entering the foster-care system, presenting parents an array of other challenges. They provide food and shelter, and create a positive environment that encourages emotional and psychological healing.

Badillo-Urquiola reported that many foster parents expressed a lack of support from caseworkers and foster agencies. The lack of resources between the foster parents, the caseworkers, and the foster agencies is an overarching problem that makes it challenging for foster parents to provide the teens with a sense of normalcy, parents said over and over in the interviews.

“The agency likes to say that it is for the sake of ‘normalcy,’ to have the child have all of these electronics and have access like a normal child. However, the children that we get in care, more often than most, did not have a normal upbringing like your child or your siblings or yourself would have had,” the study says.

According to Wisniewski, the non-traditional relationship between foster parents and teens results in a decreased sense of authority and trust between parent and teen. The study found that foster parents with less technological expertise who attempted to mitigate online risk through technology restrictions faced increased conflict that prevented the development of a trusting relationship.

Badillo-Urquiola said she hopes the study helps online safety-tech developers “understand that this is a unique population of teens; we might not be able to use the same solutions that we use for the general teen population.”

Previous studies have found that restricted access to technology, otherwise known as the digital divide, reduced digital literacy among foster teens, affecting their ability to develop healthy relationships and achieve future career and financial success. Addressing the issue of adolescent online safety for foster youth is critical in working towards improved life trajectories for foster youth, says Wisniewski.

Badillo-Urquiola said further research is needed to develop tools that can better help foster families.

This research was partially funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, a private foundation that works to reduce inequality in youth outcomes. The study also won a best-paper award at the conference.

Badillo-Urquiola earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Central Florida, and is pursing her doctorate in modeling and simulation. She expects to graduate in 2021 and hopes to become a professor and a lead scholar in human-computer interaction.

Wisniewski is an expert on the topic of adolescent online safety and is the first computer scientist to receive the scholars award from the foundation. Wisniewski and Badillo-Urquiola are the first research team to tackle digital inequality in terms of the unequal risks and opportunities the internet presents to youth in the foster care system.