Social Media Notebook - Mining for eHealth Information and Striking Gold: How Do Teens Fare?

June 7, 2010
Gwenn S. O'Keeffe, MD, FAAP

MDNG Primary Care, May 2010, Volume 11, Issue 5

Dr. Gwenn examines the impact of the Internet on teenagers' understanding of health issues pertinent to them and how a teenager's use of the Internet for information differs from a physician's.

When my oldest daughter was in third grade, she and a friend decided to attempt to determine the sex of her friend’s pet gerbil, Fluffy. This was a complicated task for two eager 7-year-olds, literate for their age but still new to the game of Internet searches. Determined, these two young biologists sat at a computer with Fluffy in one young hand and a book called “Gerbil: Your Guide to Care” in the hands of the other while both stared at the computer screen awaiting the results of the recently typed in query: “finding the sex of a gerbil.”

After a few minutes searching online, my daughter emerged with a question: “What does elongated mean?”

If she had been a true “tween” or teen, this question could have been alarming, but we took it at face value given her age and the task at hand and answered it with a simple definition: “it means to become long.” Since boy gerbils do have a long line near their genitalia, the kids deemed Fluffy must be a boy. Us adults were not so sure given the description but were so impressed by their determination to confirm Fluffy’s gender and their use of the Internet, we decided Fluffy, the boy gerbil, would be happiest as a bachelor… just in case!

Fast forward nine years; these kids are now almost 16 and much more online with more complicated searches, heavy social media involvement, and cell phones basically glued to their hands. They use peers for information, including about health issues, and their interests and life experiences drive their searches. But they don’t search like we do. They do quick searches and basically stop after the first page or so. Remember, these are teens, and they are about the here and now. They want information quickly, and once they find answers that read ok, they move on. They don’t think about issues of reliability like we do. Actually, adults don’t think much about issues of online reliability either, but teens think about it even less!

The Pew Internet and American Life Project documented the teen e-patient experience in “Social Media and Young Adults” and reported that 1/3 of teens age 12-17 years are hunting for health information online, with 17% seeking information about “sensitive topics,” such as drug use, depression, and sexual health. In Online Health Search 2006, Pew Internet and American Life Project noted that only 15% of health information seekers check the source of their information online!

Why is this important? Teens are very likely to find misinformation online and more likely to buy into that information than adults because of how they are wired. Because a participation gap still exists with many parents, parents may not know that their teens are searching for health information online, or what they are doing online to begin with.

While our job isn’t to teach our families the technologies themselves, it is our job to be sure they become e-health savvy, because that directly impacts their health and wellbeing. The younger our patients are, the higher the stakes if faulty online health information leads to a poor offline health decision, so we truly can’t ignore this responsibility or assume someone else will pick up the slack.

Before you panic and start to worry that adding any more to the visit will shortchange other important areas, what I’m suggesting won’t add more time at all, but save you time. By asking your patients about their “Dr. Google” experiences, you’ll become more efficient and have more effective conversations about what is really on your patients’ and their parents’ minds. You’ll be better able to address the true health issues and debunk the myths, as well as dispense a few pearls about where to get more reliable health information next time they embark on an online health hunt.

For a more in-depth e-health discussion, you can use your online health venues, social media platforms, blogs, websites, and newsletters to post tips, articles, and lists of links to help guide your families to healthy online search practices. When you do, be sure to address the following points:

1. Finding accurate information online: Websites and blogs you recommend.

2. Is Facebook reliable? Why not?

3. What makes an author reputable and an expert? Patients don’t often look at credentials or realize that some sites use MD authors, whereas others are writers quoting MDs or other experts.

4. When should a parent or teen call you instead of searching Dr. Google?

We tell parents to model good behavior for their kids. If we model good online health literacy behavior for our families, we’ll be providing a service that will go a long way to ensuring they have a safe and healthy future.


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