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Does The Internet Fail Teens Needing Health Information?

Doctors say teens are using the internet to find health answers, but aren't always able to navigate the information.

About three years ago, Laura Offutt was between medical consulting projects and looking for something new to try. Around the same time, she noticed that her teenage children and their friends were not happy with the way health information was being presented in school. 

Additionally, Offutt said the teens seemed to have picked up bad information while attempting to fill in the gaps in knowledge from their school presentations. That’s how she started a teen health blog, now a website, called Real Talk with Dr. Offutt.

“The topics are written specifically for teens, in language that hopefully is appealing to teens, but also that will encourage discussion via anonymous comments, anonymous questions and some anonymous surveys that are on the website,” Offutt said.

Research published by Northwestern University in 2015 found that 86 percent of teen respondents reported they got at least some health information from online sources.  

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Ana Radovic said she sees those numbers playing out in her clinical work with teens.

“They’re coming in, having looked up something themselves. They kind of have their worries, their ideas,” Radovic said. “But I like for them to be up front with me, because then we can have an honest discussion about what they are thinking, and I can address some of the questions they have had.”

Despite teens taking the initiative to search out health information, the adults in a child’s life still seem to play a bigger role in learning about health. The Northwestern study found that only one-quarter of respondents reported getting “a lot” of health information from the web. But using that same “a lot” standard, more than half reported turning to their parents. Additionally, 32 percent talk to teachers and 29 percent said they get information from doctors and nurses.

Radovic said doctors should always keep that in mind when seeing patients. She said they can provide a context for the information that teens cannot.

“Some of us in the medical field joke around about someone looking up something and asking ‘Dr. Google.’ And so, something that Dr. Google is missing, is that experience,” said Radovic, using a rash as an example. “You could have the same kind of rash being multiple different diagnoses, depending on what’s going on, depending on someone’s history, what they have been exposed to. And so it’s important to put that experience into context and let them know to not just rely on what they have read.”

Medical professionals are not the only ones who can provide context to those sometimes misleading web posts. Parents can also help, according to Radovic. And there is the Discern tool, which helps asses the validity of health information online. She said the key for parents is to always keep the lines of communications open with the kids in their lives. 

The way you approach those questions is also important. She said even her own children go online for health information. When she asked them why, they told her it was faster and the answer, “Did not come with a lecture.”

But what about the teens who don’t go to adults, or the ones that will only go to an adult for subjects that won’t come with a lecture?  

Most so-called “Dr. Google” users never get past the first 20 links, according to Radovic. Although, she said, often the information in those top hits is medically solid, but the person searching still needs to ask the right questions.

“Let’s say you sprained your ankle, and you wanted to know whether you needed to see the doctor or not. Well, if you search the term ‘sprained ankle,’ then you might get somewhere you can go and get help. Or you might get Web MD, because you are using the right phrase,” she said. “But if you are a teen, and maybe you don’t have experience, maybe you search, ‘messed up ankle,’ then you get a bunch of discussion boards, or pictures of other people who have hurt their ankle.”

She said that information is much less useful and might even be frightening for teens. So, the answer could be to make sure medical professionals are posting with teen-driven Google searchers in mind. However, Radovic and Laura Offutt both said most doctors don’t have enough time to be worrying about search terms and search engine optimization.

“My concern is that if physicians and other health care providers do not become a heavy presence in this space … and if our voices are not there, they will be diluted out by other people that are trying to sell products, or have another agenda that really is not putting the patient’s interest first,” Offutt said.

That Northwestern study found that teens are more likely to search for fitness or preventative care information, than any other type of medical information. Offutt said she hears from teens that they are also more likely to use the internet, than an adult, when it comes to finding information about depression and suicide.

“One of the reasons I have heard for this, is that they don’t want to worry their parents,” Offutt said. “They may not even necessarily want the information for themselves, but they have a friend that they are worried about, they have a classmate that they are worried about. So, they are trying to get information to understand what is serious, what are warning signs.”

Offutt said society needs to pay attention to that, because mental health is such an important part of teen health and having the wrong information could be dangerous.

Dr. Ana Radovic offers a few tips to parents of teens who are looking for health advice.

Health care coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.