A new study shows that 84 percent of American teenagers consult the Internet for information regarding health, fitness and overall physical and mental behavior.
The nationwide survey is the first initiative after more than 10 years to tackle how media tools are being put to use by young people, said Ellen Wartella, lead author and communications professor at Northwestern University. The study is the only one of its kind that used new health information systems such as social media sites, mobile apps and electronic portable gadgets.
The researchers conducted the study by reviewing the data of 1,156 adolescents in America aged 13-18 years old, 80 percent of whom went to a public school. The survey for the participants belonging to English-speaking households were performed in fall, while the investigation for those in Spanish-speaking communities were conducted in March.
The survey looked into various factors associated with adolescent Internet use such as frequency of usage, amount of information obtained, the most searched topics, reliable references and the overall impact of the experience on health behaviors. The survey also reveals that 42 percent of topics searched by teens pertain to fitness and exercise, 36 percent to nutrition and diet, 19 percent to stress-associated conditions, 18 percent to both sexually-transmitted diseases and puberty, and 16 percent to mental health such as depression.
The researchers also found that the surveyed teenagers use digital tools to obtain self-help information such as reducing the intake of soda, engaging in exercises and looking for healthy recipes. The team also delved into the rankings of the potential health information resources of the teens. They discovered that their main source of health advice come from their parents (55 percent), followed by health subjects in school (32 percent) and medical professionals (29 percent).
The Internet came fourth in the rankings, with only 25 percent. Although the Internet was not the overall leading source of health information for teens, it ranks number 1 among all other media sources such as books, magazines and television. "The internet is not replacing parents, teachers, and doctors; it is supplementing them," the researchers wrote [pdf].
Further into the study, the team of experts also discovered that one quarter of the surveyed teens searched the web for publications about the health problems of their friends and family members. "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 study co-author Vicky Rideout.
With this, Wartella said that despite the negative connotations associated with teens regarding Internet usage, the study was able to emphasize that authorities should devise ways on how teens can get quality information on the web because they actually rely on them and use them.
"Careful discussion with teens about seeking information online is critical since teens may act on the information they receive and may end up harming rather than helping themselves," comments pediatric vice chair Dr. Danelle Fisher from Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif, who was not part of the study. "The Internet is a wealth of information, but not all of this information is accurate. Teens and adults should always analyze critically the source of information when trying to look up something online and use reputable sources if possible."
Photo: Nicola | Flickr