As teens turn to Internet for health info, accuracy paramount

Eighty-four percent of teens get some of their health information from the Internet, and one in four say they get "a lot" of their health information online, according to a new study from Northwestern University.

The study highlights the need to ensure the information is accurate, appropriate and easily accessible to teens "because it's used and acted upon," Ellen Wartella, director of Northwestern's Center on Media and Human Development and lead author of the report, told the Washington Post.

Researchers conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,156 English-speaking U.S. teens ages 13 to 18 in October and November last year.

Among the findings:

  • Nearly one-third of teens said they used online data to improve behavior such as cutting back on drinking soda, using exercise to combat depression and trying healthier recipes
  • Teens rely heavily on search engines when looking for health information, and tend to go to the site that pops up first in their searches
  • Teens from lower-income families are more likely to have faced significant health issues in their family, yet are less likely to have had a health class (44 percent, compared to 60 percent of high-income teens), or to have access to digital tools such as a laptop, smartphone, or tablet (a 17- to 26-percentage-point difference)
  • While 25 percent say they have gotten "a lot" of health information online, those percentages were 40 percent among black teens, 31 percent for Hispanic teens and 18 percent of white teens
  • At the same time, they get a "a lot" of health information from parents (55 percent); from doctors and nurses (29 percent); but less from traditional media media such as books (10 percent), TV (9 percent) and newspapers (3 percent)

Fitness and exercise, plus food and nutrition were the two most-researched topics.

A study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that teens' love of texting can be a useful way to assess their health behavior in real time.

Other research found that teens in a California juvenile detention center were overwhelmingly interested in being able to access their health records online, but not necessarily keen on sharing parts of them with their parents. Segregating data to protect teens' privacy so far has proven to be a vexing problem as providers ramp up their patient portals.

To learn more:
- read the report (.pdf)
- here's the Washington Post article

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