More than eight in 10 U.S. teenagers turn to the Internet for health information, and just under a third have changed their health behaviors based on what they found online, according to a new survey. Teens following online advice sampled healthier foods, tried exercising when depressed and reduced how much soda they drank, the survey found.
But the Internet still ranked fourth, behind parents, school health classes and health care professionals, in terms of where teens get their information, the study authors from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., noted. One expert said this point to the benefits of online information. "There is so much hype that the Internet is pulling families and relationships apart. Actually, teenagers are going to the Internet to cultivate healthier and safer lifestyles," said Dr. Jodi Gold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City. The study found 55 percent of teens get a lot of health information from their parents, followed by 32 percent from health classes, 29 percent from doctors and nurses and 25 percent online.
"This study reinforces the importance of being involved in your teenager's life," said Gold, who was not part of the research. "While teenagers go to the Internet for health information, they still get most of their health information from their parents."
The survey included information from nearly 1,200 U.S. teens. They were between the ages of 13 and 18 in late 2014 and early 2015 when the survey was done. The online survey asked teens how they seek out, receive and assess health information. The survey team was led by Ellen Wartella, a professor of psychology and human development and social policy at Northwestern.
The findings were presented at a Northwestern policy conference in Washington, D.C., on June 2.
A quarter of the teens said they got "a lot" of health information online, and just over a third said they got "some." Overall, 84 percent have sought health information online at least once, and 58 percent of them usually start by looking up a topic on Google. Half of those using search engines said they clicked on the first result, which they regarded as the "best" site for their question.
One expert warns of the downside of consulting the Internet. "Careful discussion with teens about seeking information online is critical since teens may act on the information they receive and may end up harming rather than helping themselves," said Dr. Danelle Fisher, vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
"The Internet is a wealth of information, but not all of this information is accurate. Teens and adults should always analyze critically the source of information when trying to look up something online and use reputable sources if possible," said Fisher, who was also not part of the study. The survey found that teens are at least somewhat savvy in their searches: Only 14 percent trust ".com" sites compared to the 37 percent who trust ".edu" sites. Just 10 percent get a lot of health information from social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook. More than two-thirds of the teens were concerned about health privacy or data mining, according to the survey.
Teens should be wary if a site is designed to generate income, Gold suggested. "Parents need to teach their children and teenagers how to be critical consumers of online health information," she said. School assignments topped the list of reasons teens sought health information online. But 45 percent looked for info to take better care of themselves. Other reasons included checking symptoms for a health problems or getting information for family or friends.
Fitness and exercise led the topics teens looked up online, with 42 percent looking up information on that topic and 36 percent looking up information on diet and nutrition. Other popular topics included stress and anxiety, sexually transmitted diseases, puberty, sleep, depression or other mental health issues.Another expert believes teens are at a vulnerable time in their lives. "At an age when body image becomes important, it may not be a surprise to find teens looking for health information that may help with fitness and nutrition," said Dr. Carlo Reyes, a pediatrician and assistant medical director of the emergency department at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "This does create a significant opportunity for preventative care."
Teens do encounter negative health information, such as drinking games, how to be anorexic or bulimic, how to get tobacco or nicotine products and how to get or make illegal drugs, but most do not see this information often.
"This study should reassure parents that their teenagers are using the Internet to learn how to be healthier, but parents need to have offline conversations about sex, sexuality, body image, sexual health, beauty and Photoshop," Gold said. "Their teenagers are actually listening."