Facebook, blogs and internet chat sites may ring alarm bells for some parents, but these social networking tools are the focus of a study aimed at bridging the digital divide for young people with a disability.
Flinders University is one of 70 partners in a new research collaboration to investigate the role of technology in young people's lives, and specifically how it can be used to improve the mental health and wellbeing of 12 to 25-year-olds.
The federally-funded project is being headed by the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre (YAW-CRC) - a world-first collaboration that unites young people across Australia with universities, not-for-profit groups, governments and corporate sectors.
During the next five years the YAW-CRC and its partners will conduct various research projects to determine how digital technology can help improve the lives of young people, particularly in relation to youth suicide, alcohol and drug use, discrimination, cyber bullying, eating disorders and disability.
Flinders University new senior lecturer in Disability and Community Inclusion, Dr Pammi Raghavendra, will explore the role of social networking as a way of "facilitating social participation" - building upon her current work involving young people with disabilities, particularly those in regional areas.
In her previous role as Manager, Research and Innovation at Novita Children's Services, she was the Chief Investigator on the project Connective solutions: Facilitating the social participation of children and adolescents with physical disabilities or acquired brain injury using the Web 2.0 social networking and 3D virtual environments, funded by the Channel 7 Children's Research Foundation.
"Our research has shown young people use the internet for up to three hours a day but young people with disabilities aren't using the internet anywhere near as much and not in the same ways, so there's clearly a gap and certainly opportunities for them to be better supported," Dr Raghavendra said.
"Young people with a disability have very limited social networks so my part in the CRC will be to further look at how the internet can facilitate social participation of young people with varying disabilities in the community."
Despite the dangers of the internet, Dr Raghavendra said with proper training around cyber safety and support, social networking has many benefits for marginalised or disadvantaged youth groups.
"Some parents don't want their children to use the internet because of all the bad stuff you hear about but there are sites available which are protected and monitored," she said.
"They provide a very supportive environment where young people can talk to people who are going through similar issues and as a result they build strong friendship networks.
"And with the way of the world these days it's important to ensure young people with a disability have access to information on the internet so they don't fall further behind and the digital divide doesn't widen further."
Dr Raghavendra's part in the Young and Well CRC will expand on the research she commenced whilst at Novita Children's Services, in partnership with Dr Lareen Newman from Flinders University's Southgate Institute, Dr Denise Wood, a senior lecturer in Media Arts at UniSA and Dr Tim Connell, Lead Clinician, Psychology, at Disability SA.