Teens search Internet for healthy living advice for ‘surprising’ reasons

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EVANSTON, Ill. — What’s happening to my body?

Can I get an STI from oral sex?

Is there a safe amount of alcohol for me to drink?

These days, many teens are looking for all the answers — for better or worse — starting with a Google search box.

“The teenage years are … a time when young people grapple with a tangle of health concerns, many uniquely important during these particular years of life,” says a first-of-its-kind Northwestern University study. “From puberty, hygiene and childhood obesity in the early years, to sexual activity, drugs and alcohol in the later years, teens must traverse a landscape replete with significant new health challenges — often while coping with substantial amounts of stress and sleep deprivation.”

The good news for caregivers is that while the Internet is the most popular media source for health information, teenagers still say they get the majority of such advice from their parents.

The study found 55% of American teenagers say they get “a lot” of health info from parents, followed by health classes at school (32%) and medical providers (29%). Overall, the Internet ranks fourth (25%) as a source of “a lot” of health information.

What teens want to know

“We found some real surprises about what teens are doing online when it comes to their health,” says Ellen Wartella, a co-author of the report and a communications professor at Northwestern’s School of Communication.

Vickie Rideout, a co-author of the study and president of VJR Consulting, a firm that specializes in research on youth and media, said she was surprised just 13% of the teens surveyed said they had turned to the Internet to research topics they were uncomfortable talking with their parents about. She thought that was exactly what they’d be looking for.

Instead, “They’re doing additional research and — in some cases — are actually going online to find information to help their parents out [with a medical question or concern],” said Rideout.

The most common reason teens look for health information online is to learn how to take better care of themselves. Teens are primarily looking for information on everyday topics such as exercise and nutrition, according to the study. They’re also searching for more information on stress, anxiety, sexually transmitted infections, depression and sleep.

Among teens who have looked for health information online, 58% say they “often” start their search for a topic on Google, and an additional 14% say they “often” start out at a different search engine.

In February, Google began capitalizing on the fact that one in 20 of its searches are for health-related information. A new feature called the Knowledge Graph displays “typical symptoms and treatments, as well as details on how common the condition is — whether it’s critical, if it’s contagious, what ages it affects, and more,” wrote Prem Ramaswami, a Google product manager, in a blog post. “For some conditions, you’ll also see high-quality illustrations from licensed medical illustrators. Once you get this basic info from Google, you should find it easier to do more research on other sites around the Web, or know what questions to ask your doctor.

Google says it works with a team of medical doctors to carefully compile, curate and review the highlighted medical information, which appears on the righthand side of your search results when Googling a term like “heart attack.” The company says all the facts displayed have been checked by medical doctors at Google and the Mayo Clinic for accuracy.

Still, Rideout said she’s dismayed that half of teens said they usually just click on the first site that comes up, and only go further if they still have questions.

“This study underscores the importance of making sure there is accurate, appropriate and easily accessible health information available to teens online,” the study concludes. “The information is used and acted upon, so it had better be good.”

The digital divide

Lower-income youth (those from families earning less than $25,000 a year) are far more likely to have faced significant health issues in their family, and they are far more likely to cite a range of health issues as being very important to them personally, according to the report. But while they appear to face more health challenges than other teens (whose families earn more than $25,000 a year), they are less likely to have had a health class at school, or to have access to digital tools such as a laptop, smartphone or tablet.

This study — and others — would suggest they’re the population who need it most.

All in all, of the 1,156 U.S. teens surveyed online by GfK Group using members of its KnowledgePanel, one in three teens said they had changed a health-related behavior — such as cutting back on soda or seeing a doctor about a possible sexually transmitted infection — based on information they found online.

“I look at this and say the Internet is kind of working in the ways we hope it would,” said Rideout.