Text: Kaisa Järvelä, Photo: freeimages.com

Chatroom Data Opens up a Window to Adolescent Problems and Interactions with Chat Counsellors

Researchers at the Finnish Youth Research Network investigated how Suunta, a web based counselling/guidance service for youth, works and compiled data from 40 discussions between counselors and adolescents. Many of the discussions dealing with education, employment, and other future problems of the youth are now available at FSD’s Aila Data Service for further use.

When Senior Researcher Anu Gretschel at the Finnish Youth Research Network heard that Save the Children was initiating a web based guidance service for youth, her first reaction was disbelief. "You can’t have a meaningful encounter with the youth online!"

This disbelief was soon subjected to a scientific test, as the Finnish Youth Research Society received a commission to investigate the effectiveness of the Suunta service.


Adolescents sought help for problems relating to education and employment, among other things.

–When the initial confusion about chat counselling dissipated, I became excited with the idea that we would now have a complete interaction situation on the computer screen, and we could use this situation directly as our research data, Gretschel recalls.

As the work progressed, prejudices towards chat counselling were overcame as well. The report by Gretschel and Pirjo Junttila-Vitikka clearly demonstrated that encountering and counselling young people online works. Chat services have since become a permanent procedure for many organisations that work with youth.

The data collected from the Suunta chat met expectations also as research data. The data collected for the report is now available at the FSD for further research, studying, and teaching purposes.

Many possible applications for the data

In addition to the original report, a master’s thesis was written based on the 2013 data. Sara Peltola, a student from the University of Eastern Finland, examined chat environment from the perspective of developing study guidance.

Gretschel thinks that there are also many further applications for the dataset.

–Chat guidance is a new form of youth work and a great deal of educational material is needed on the subject.

–Our data reveal, for example, what type of cycles a guidance discussion can consist of, how certain types of messages can be understood, and how a counsellor can react in different situations.

The data were gathered in the same year as the youth guarantee was introduced in Finland. The youth guarantee is a project by the Finnish government, which aims to help young people gain access to education and employment. Gretschel thinks that the data can provide researchers with an authentic picture of the life situations and challenges of Finnish adolescents during the early implementation of the youth guarantee.

–The data quite clearly reveal the brutality of the situation. Some of the adolescents had attained several educational degrees, but they were still unable to find a job, Gretschel says.

Furthermore, the data are a good source for studying interaction, as the data gathered from the chat is completely authentic. Researchers have access to all the means of interaction that were available to the adolescent and the counsellor.

Long and meaningful discussions

The data were collected by seven Suunta counsellors during a period of one and a half months.

During this period, the counsellors had the permission to save 40 chat and e-mail conversations with adolescents between the ages 15-25. 31 of these discussions were deposited with the FSD.

The number of adolescents in the sample was lower than what the researchers had hoped for, but this was well compensated by the length and quality of the conversations. Both the e-mail and chat discussions proved to be long and meaningful.

–Our assumption was that none of the adolescents would spend more than 30 minutes on the chat. However, the results proved that the average time spent on the chat was 55 minutes, Gretschel explains.

The longest conversation lasted for two hours and fifteen minutes.

The conversations via email were extensive as well, and the time between the initial and final contact varied from two days to nearly a month. The average duration of an e-mail contact was 9.3 days and the average number of e-mails exchanged 6.8. Some individual e-mails were several pages in length.

–The difference between e-mail and chat conversations was mainly the fact that the counsellors and youth could take their time between e-mails. There was no difference, for example, how delicate things were discussed via e-mail or by chat, Gretschel says.

Practical questions and extensive problems

The challenges and problems faced by the youth varied on an extensive scale. Some could ponder about choosing between high school and dual qualification in a vocational school.

On the other hand, some problems were more serious and complex, and they could lead to very deep and meaningful discussions. For example, a youth who had just lost their grandmother began the conversation by stating that they were scared of life. During the discussions it became apparent that the person also suffered from symptoms of depression and an eating disorder.

Another youth from a small town described that they had been bullied in primary school and suffered from such severe mental disorders that they could not continue their studies, even if they wished to. There were also problems at home, and besides the old bullies from primary school, no other people of the same aged lived in the town.

The young people who sought help were in very different situations in their life. Some were studying in primary school or high school, some had graduated from primary school or vocational school, but were unemployed, some were currently studying for a vocational examination, and some had dropped out of school. Some of them already had a profession and were employed, but still sought guidance for their future.

"Easy and rewarding way to gather data"

Gretschel reveals that although many of the subjects discussed were very sensitive, the adolescents were more than happy to give permission for using the data in research.

–It seemed that many of them felt honoured that through research they could participate in developing a new service for the youth, says Gretschel.

The researchers anonymized the data carefully so that the confidentiality of the adolescents was not compromised at any point. All identifiers relating to a person’s name, municipality, school, and other organizations were removed. Sectors of vocational education and fields of study were omitted as well.

Gretschel encourages other researchers to study web-based services, especially those services where the data can be saved effortlessly.

–I was very happy with the ease of data gathering as soon as we got the ball rolling, she says.

Gretschel also says that the counsellors who saved the data felt that it was easy and did not feel that it distracted their guidance work at all.

–All in all the data collection process was very simple from a researcher’s point of view, compared to recording and transcribing a face-to-face interaction situation, Gretschel concludes.

The data archived at the FSD can be used for research, studying, and teaching.

What is the Suunta service?

  • Suunta service was first introduced as part of the Finnish Broadcasting Company’s Nuorille. Nyt! (For young people. Now!) campaign.
  • The campaign was a part of a Focus on youth project funded by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. The aim of the project was to create new solutions for identifying and supporting youth at the risk of social exclusion.
  • The service was carried out by Save the Children Finland
  • The aim of the service was to support youth aged 15-25 in planning their future, and guide them to studies or employment, or supporting services.
  • Voluntary and paid counsellors provided the adolescents with support via chat, e-mail, and Skype.
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