Many teens report using the Internet to learn about health issues

Parents, educators and health care providers are teens’ primary sources for health information, followed by a variety of online and digital health resources.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center looked at teens’ use of online technology, including their use of social media sites. Although that research examined the rates of teens’ use of various kinds of technology and specific social media platforms, it wasn’t designed to identify the kinds of topics and issues that young people might be exploring – an area of interest to many adults who care about the wellbeing of kids.

According to findings from Teens, Health and Technology, a national survey conducted by the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University, large numbers of teens (ages 13-18) are using the Internet as a key source for information about health. Although teens identified their parents, school health classes and health care providers as their most common sources for information about health, 84 percent have gone online to find health information. These young people are interested in finding information about many different kinds of health topics. According to the survey, the most common topics included fitness and exercise, diet and nutrition, stress and anxiety, sexually transmitted diseases, puberty, depression and other mental health issues, and sleep. There were differences between the kinds of topics that boys and girls explored. For example, girls were more likely to look for information related to depression, diet and nutrition, stress and anxiety and eating disorders.

Additional highlights from the study included the following:

  • Besides asking teens about the kinds of health topics they were exploring, the survey asked teens why they were seeking out this information. The most common reason was to gather information for a school project (53 percent), followed by learning how to take better care of themselves (45 percent) and checking out symptoms related to something they were experiencing (33 percent). Other reasons teens shared included getting information about a health condition affecting a friend or family member, learning how to treat a particular condition, getting information before or after a doctor’s visit, and because they couldn’t talk with parents about the topic. Those teens who had dealt with a serious health condition (affecting themselves, a friend or a family member) were more likely than other teens to have sought “a lot” of online health information.
  • Of those young people who had looked for health information online, about one-third changed their behaviors as a result of what they learned. Most common were changes related to nutrition and fitness. Eighteen percent reported changing their diet or nutritional habits because of this information, and 15 percent reported changing their fitness routines.
  • While social networking sites (such as Facebook or Twitter) were identified as a source of “a lot” of health information for 10 percent of teens, most teens are not looking to these sites for health information. Almost nine out of 10 teens said they were unlikely to post health questions or seek advice on a social networking site.
  • Those teens who personally owned digital devices (such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop) were able to more frequently access health information, and the study showed that there is still a substantial digital divide for teens across family income. The authors stressed that having this access to personal devices could be particularly beneficial to lower income teens when considering the high numbers of those who have family members experiencing significant health problems (52 percent of lower income teens compared with 27 percent of higher income teens).

As the study’s authors point out, when young people enter adolescence they encounter new kinds of health concerns, so it’s not surprising that teens are seeking out information on a variety of health topics. The authors stressed that the Internet is not replacing parents and other key adults (such as teachers or doctors) as the source for teens’ health information on these topics. Instead, the online information is supplementing the kinds of information and support that caring adults can provide. During conversations with teens about health issues, it may be helpful for adults to ask young people about the topics they’ve explored online, what they learned, and their reflections about the credibility of the sources and the information. Helping teens build critical digital literacy skills may become more important as growing numbers of youth use online sources for health information.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, health care provider or other caring adult in the life of a young person, you may benefit from exploring these and other results from the Teens, Health and Technology study, which includes many informative comments from teens about the issues explored in the survey. You may also be interested in Michigan State University Extension resources related to the positive health and development of young people. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create environments and relationships that are physically and emotionally safe and includes a focus on issues of media literacy.