Revealed: how teens are using the Internet to access health information

3 Jun

Researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, report that the vast majority of teenagers turn to the Internet to learn about puberty, drugs, sex, depression and other issues. However, kids still turn to their parents first when it comes to advice on health matters.

teen using laptop
Fifty-three percent of teens said they searched for health information online for study purposes, while 33% of the participants reported using the Internet to self-diagnose.

“We found some real surprises about what teens are doing online when it comes to their health,” said Ellen Wartella, director of Northwestern’s Center on Media and Human Development and lead author of the report.

“We often hear about all the negative things kids are doing online,” she continues, “but teens are using the Internet to take care of themselves and others around them. The new study underscores how important it is to make sure there is accurate, appropriate and easily accessible information available to teens, because it’s used and acted upon.”

The Northwestern team surveyed 1,156 teenagers in the US who were aged between 13 and 18 years old.

The researchers found that although 84% of teens use the Internet to find information on health concerns, 88% of respondents would not share health concerns with Facebook friends or on other social media. However, 21% of the teens said they had downloaded mobile health apps.

Thirty-two percent of respondents said that information they had found online had prompted changes of their behavior – examples cited by the authors include cutting back on soda, eating more healthily and using exercise to alleviate depression.

Despite the focus on Internet delivery of health information, the teenagers reported that they get the majority of their health information from their parents:

  • 55% said they get “a lot” of health information from parents
  • 32% said they get a similar amount of information from health classes at school
  • Health care professionals provided “a lot” of information to 29% of the teens
  • The Internet was reported as the source of “a lot” of health information for just 25% of respondents.

Medical websites were responsible for providing health information to 31% of those surveyed, followed by YouTube (20%), Yahoo (11%), Facebook (9%) and Twitter (4%).

Majority of health-related searches are for homework

Any concerns that the reported scouring of the Internet is reflective of dangerous new health risks facing teenagers may be somewhat relieved by the study’s finding that the main reason teens search for health information is for school assignments – 53% of the respondents said they do this.

By contrast, only 33% of teens said they used the Internet to check symptoms or attempt to diagnose an illness.

The topics most searched for by teens breaks down as follows:

  • Fitness/exercise (42%)
  • Diet/nutrition (36%)
  • Stress and anxiety (19%)
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (18%)
  • Puberty (18%)
  • Depression (16%)
  • Sleep (16%).

What the study terms as “negative health information” was found fairly infrequently. Although 27% of teens had come across drinking games online and 25% had seen information on how to access tobacco or nicotine products, only 4% said they had seen such information often, and 23% said they had just seen it once or twice.

The study reports some useful findings for online health services. For instance, half of the respondents said they usually just click on the first website that is returned in a search. And teens also pay attention to domain names – 37% said they trusted a dot-edu domain, compared with just 14% for a dot-com domain. Only 8% of teens reported using sites specifically designed for their age group, however.

“The Internet is clearly empowering teens to protect their health,” says Vicky Rideout, head of VJR Consulting in San Francisco, CA, and a co-author of the report. “But we need to make sure they are equipped with the digital literacy skills to successfully navigate this online landscape.”

Written by David McNamee