Some good news about teens and the Internet: Many switch to healthier habits after consulting the Web.
In the first national study in more than a decade to look at how adolescents use digital tools for health information, nearly one-third of teenagers said they used online data to improve behavior — such as cutting back on drinking soda, using exercise to combat depression and trying healthier recipes — according to a study to be released Tuesday by researchers at Northwestern University.
Although it’s common to hear about “all the negative things kids are doing online,” the study highlights the importance of making sure there is accurate, appropriate and easily accessible information available to teens, “because it’s used and acted upon,” said Ellen Wartella, director of Northwestern’s Center on Media and Human Development and lead author of the report.
Researchers also found that nearly one-quarter of teens were going online to look for information about health conditions affecting family or friends. While most teens rely on digital resources to learn more about puberty, drugs, sex and depression, among other issues, a surprising 88 percent said they did not feel comfortable sharing their health concerns with friends on Facebook or on other social networking sites.
“I mainly find it kind of moving, because it really illustrates that a lot of teens are grappling with very real, very important health challenges and that the Internet is empowering them with the information they need to take better care of themselves,” said Vicky Rideout, a co-author of the study.
Parents remain by far the leading source of health information, with 55 percent of teens surveyed saying they got “a lot” of health information from parents, followed by health classes in school and doctors and nurses. But the Internet is the fourth-largest source of health information, far outstripping all other media, such as books, television news, radio, and newspaper and magazine articles. Eighty-four percent of teens said they turned to the Internet for health information.
Rideout said it wasn’t that surprising to her that teens would point to their parents as the leading source of health information. What was more surprising, she said, is that only a relatively small number— 13 percent — of teens said they turned to the Internet because they couldn’t talk to their parents.
“The Internet is not replacing parents, teachers, and doctors; it is supplementing them,” the researchers wrote.
In fact, 23 percent of teens say they have gone online to research information about a condition that affects a friend or family member. Data from the study indicate that 31 percent of low-
income teens have done so, compared with 18 percent of high-income teens.
Researchers surveyed 1,156 American teenagers between 13- and 18-years-old. Teens in English-speaking households were surveyed last fall, and those in Spanish-dominant households were surveyed in March. Eighty percent of those surveyed attended public school.
The survey explored how often teens use online tools, how much information they receive, what topics they are most concerned with, what sources they trust and whether they have changed their health behaviors as a result.
The top health topics researched by teens online: fitness and exercise (42 percent), diet and nutrition (36 percent), stress or anxiety (19 percent), sexually transmitted diseases (18 percent), puberty (18 percent), and depression or other mental health issues (16 percent).
The survey also highlights the importance of making sure teens develop digital health literacy skills. Teens have a hard time telling the difference between advertising and content on some Web sites, research has shown. Half of teens say they usually click on the first site that comes up. Domain names that end with “.edu” are more trusted than those that end with “.com,” the survey found.
“We need to make sure there is good information for teens online,” Rideout said. Teens could be influenced by the tweets they see about e-cigarettes without realizing that a large proportion are coming from manufacturers, she said. Someone doing a Google search on abortion clinics might instead pull up “a whole slew” of disguised antiabortion links, she said.
“Are the anti-smoking groups as savvy about being online as the e-cig and vaping companies? These issues are what the study is putting a spotlight on,” she said.