Helping Teens Find Health Information Online They Can Trust

June 13, 2013
Kathleen Costanza
Common Sense Education Blogger

CATEGORIES Digital Literacy, Research & Studies, Students

By Kathleen Costanza

Not long ago, the most comprehensive health information teens could hope for were pamphlets and posters in the waiting room of their family doctor. Now there’s an endless flood of health sites online ranging from symptom checkers to quizzes, videos, and blogs. But the abundance doesn’t necessarily mean teens are accessing the internet’s full potential as a font of information for their health.

Without the tools and understanding to assess which sites are most reliable, and without the digital and health literacy to analyze medical jargon, teens often head to their go-to source since time began—their friends.

“People turn to their friends for information because they do not trust what's available online,” writes social media scholar and Microsoft researcher danah boyd on Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “What’s Next Health.” She writes:

"I’ve interviewed teenagers who, thanks to conversations with their peers and abstinence-only education, genuinely believe that if they didn't get pregnant the last time they had sex, they won't get pregnant this time. There's so much reproductive health information available online, but youth turn to their friends for advice because they trust those ‘facts’ more.”

It seems as if, in the case of medical information, educators’ and parents’ warnings about the shaky reliability of some internet sources have backfired. Most teens interviewed in a Guttmacher Institute study said they were wary of any sexual health information they found online. They believed it was user-generated and possibly inaccurate. Plus, they added, they would have to sift through explicit material to find what they were looking for. The study found that even though they use the internet daily, few teens see it as a resource for sexual health information.

It’s not that teens aren’t heading online to look up medical information at all. About a third of teens ages 12 to 17 have searched for health, dieting, or physical fitness online, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Yet when dealing with more serious issues, the numbers drop significantly. Only 17 percent of teens have looked up information that’s difficult to talk about with adults—facts about drugs, depression, or sexual health.

In some regards, teens have good reason to be skeptical with these sensitive topics. A report done by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that about 17 percent of websites containing sexual health information had at least one inaccuracy.

So this leaves teens in a tricky spot when searching for answers. They can’t trust the internet, and many schools’ health curriculum is slim. Naturally, they trust their parents—who also may not have all the answers—or their friends (who probably have even fewer).

The internet is supposed to be the great equalizer. Teens have the right to answers about their bodies just as much as adults. So the question is, how can they know which sites they can trust? Furthermore, how can we teach them to think critically about the health information they find, to analyze it and apply it to their next medical steps?

A strong information literacy curriculum is part of the answer. Our free classroom curriculum includes lessons on how to evaluate sites’ credibility and how to research effectively online, both critical skills in this information age.

For example, our lessons on using search engines effectively can help teens navigate through results to find what they’re looking for and avoid the pitfalls of landing on less credible sites. (When teens search with slang or spell medical words wrong, they’re more often directed to less credible sites, according to an article in The Prevention Researcher.)

“Anyone who’s seen a baby use an iPad like a pro can attest to the fact that kids figure out how to use new technology amazingly quickly. But they still need to be taught other important skills surrounding how to use that technology effectively,” writes Ashley MacQuarrie at thinktanK12. “While they are more skilled at using new technology to simply locate information, studies have shown that they generally lack the ability to evaluate and think critically about what they find.” 

Evaluating and thinking critically is no easy feat for medical information. After all, a medical degree takes a decade to earn. However, guiding students through the process of investigating a medical matter with sources they can trust is an imperative part of any modern, digital education.