84% teenagers turn to Internet for health information

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A new study has found that an overwhelming majority of teenagers turn to the Internet for information on health concerns including puberty, drugs, sex, depression and other issues; however, a majority of them do not feel comfortable sharing their health concerns with their Facebook friends or on other social networking sites.

According to the study by Northwestern University researchers, nearly one third of the teenagers surveyed said the online information led to behavior changes, such as cutting back on soda, trying healthier recipes and using exercise to combat depression. One in five teens surveyed, or 21 percent, meanwhile, have downloaded mobile health apps.

“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, but teens are using the Internet to take care of themselves and others around them,” said Wartella, the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in Communication in Northwestern’s School of Communication.

“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 study, “Teens, Health & Technology,” surveyed 1,156 American teenagers between 13 and 18 years old. It will be released June 2 at a Northwestern policy conference in Washington, D.C.

The researchers explored how often teens use online health tools, how much information they receive, what topics they are most concerned with, how satisfied they are with the information, what sources they trust and whether they have changed their health behaviors as a result.

“The Internet is clearly empowering teens to protect their health,” said Vicky Rideout, head of VJR Consulting 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.”

Some of the other findings of the study include:

  • While majority of teens say they turn to the Internet for health concerns, they get majority of health information from mom and dad. 55 per cent say they get “a lot” of health info from parents, followed by health classes at school (32 per cent) and medical providers (29 per cent).
  • Overall the Internet ranks fourth (25 per cent) as a source of “a lot” of health information. Only a very small number of teens — 13 per cent — say they go online to research topics they are uncomfortable talking with their parents about.
  • Nearly a third of teens (31 per cent) visit medical websites for health information, but other, less-traditional sources include YouTube (20 per cent), Yahoo (11 per cent), Facebook (9 per cent) and Twitter (4 per cent).
  • The top four reasons teens search for health information are: school assignments (53 per cent), to take better care of themselves (45 per cent), check symptoms or diagnose (33 per cent) or find info for family or friends (27 per cent).
  • Forty-two percent of teens have researched fitness/exercise, followed by diet/nutrition (36 per cent), stress and anxiety (19 per cent), sexually transmitted diseases (18 per cent), puberty (18 per cent), depression (16 per cent) and sleep (16 per cent).
  • Nearly one in three teens (32 per cent) say they have changed their behavior due to digital health information or tools. Almost of all these (28 per cent) report a change due to online health information, with 7 per cent saying they’ve changed their behavior as a result of their use of a mobile app.
  • More than two-thirds (69 per cent) say they are concerned that websites might sell or give away information about what they do online and 70 per cent either somewhat or strongly disagree with companies directing ads to them based on their searches.
  • Many teens come across negative health information online including drinking games (27 per cent), getting tobacco or other nicotine products (25 per cent), how to be anorexic or bulimic (17 per cent) and how to get or make illegal drugs (14 per cent).
  • Half of teens say they usually click on the first site that comes up. Still domain names seem to matter; only 14 per cent say they trust a dot-com domain “a lot” compared to 37 per cent for a dot-edu domain. Interestingly, just eight per cent say they use sites designed specifically for people their age.