Anonymous online chats the new help phone for kids

WATCH ABOVE: More and more, teenagers are turning to online tools for help. Cindy Pom has the details.

TORONTO – More teens than ever are turning to online resources for help instead of parents or friends. A quick search can generate answers for almost any topic, including legal advice.

Teen Legal Helpline lets teens consult one of 10 lawyers about criminal, family and immigration law.

“Being online puts us in the sweet spot where we don’t have to take them out of their comfort zone,” said Matt Boulos, founder of Teen Legal Helpline. “It’s something they know how to do, they like doing and they understand in terms of engagement.”

Boulos, a lawyer and businessman, says he and his team have talked to approximately 700 teens since they launched the helpline in 2013.

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He initially envisioned the service as a phone line but decided an online service would be more accessible.

“Teens would be intimidated by a phone call,” said Boulos. “Lawyers weren’t always available.”

With Teen Legal Helpline, young people can disclose as much or as little personal information as they want when submitting a question. They can choose to talk to a lawyer via text, email or the site’s confidential messaging system.

The goal is to ensure teens don’t feel alone in handling problems like bullying or domestic violence on their own. Boulos expects he and his lawyers will field nearly 1,000 questions over the next year.

Problems with the legal system are not the only reason young people reach out for help. Kids Help Phone, which offers counsellors for children and teens, has seen a sharp increase in the demand for their services.

Live-chat counselling has been especially popular. Demand for this service grew by 29 per cent from 2012 to 2013. In chat counselling, young people up to age 20 can connect one-on-one with a counsellor via the web or their smartphones.

The chat counselling service took off from the minute Kids Help Phone introduced it as a pilot program in 2011.

“The demand was so high that we couldn’t keep up with it,” said Jason, a counselling manager from Kids Help Phone who did not provide his last name for confidentiality reasons.

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The 24-hour phone line continues to be the main point of contact for immediate help, but young people are finding online forums and chat counselling especially therapeutic. From a teen’s perspective, writing about a problem online can feel safer and more confidential.

“That’s where kids are at, technology-wise,” said Jason. “They’re going to go to that rather than picking up a phone. That’s where they’re comfortable.”

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