If you're anything like most teens — and heck, if you're reading this at all, since SteadyHealth is entirely dedicated to health — you'll have used the internet to look for information about health issues at one point or another. Maybe you did it because you were experiencing an issue you wanted to learn more about or find out how to best deal with, such as acne, period cramps, or sunburn. Perhaps you just wanted to become better informed. Or you could have been looking for someone else.
The internet can be a really awesome way to get information without, for instance, having to ask your parents or a teacher a potentially embarrassing question!
It can also complicate things, mind you. The now infamous "Dr Google" can quite easily get you worrying that you're dying when there's nothing much wrong with you at all, because some of the most common symptoms can also appear in people suffering from really serious diseases. What's more, health sites or social media can easily offer "fake news". This can have dangerous consequences.
What studies tell us about how teens use the web for health info
One meta-analysis — a kind of study that reviews a large number of other studies — investigated how teens in different countries used the internet to look for health information, including countries as varied as the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, Sweden, Canada, and Uganda.
Most teens didn't suffer from a particular condition and just wanted information. Some did, and faced issues like diabetes, arthritis, and caring for their teeth while they had braces. Teens, apparently, primarily use the internet to find info about their health or someone else's. Some, however, also share info, because they participate in online support groups for people who experience the same health difficulties.
Research revealed that, in the US:
- The vast majority of teenagers have used the internet to look for health-related info.
- 71 percent of those who haven't say that they are very likely to.
- Around half of teens looked for health info for family members — including pets.
- 65 percent of teenagers reported that the internet is their primary source of health info, even though they have access to other sources — like, they could ask their parents, teachers, and obviously doctors for health information.
Teens who do look for health info online mainly want to know about:
- Sports injuries
- The flu and other infections
- Sexual health subjects, including menstruation
- Skin care
Studies also report that teenagers are most likely to use the web to get answers about health topics that are taboo in their culture. This can include issues related to being gay or trans, having mental health struggles, and sexual health topics. Around half of teens diagnosed with a chronic health disease prefer a support group on the internet over a in-person support group — probably because online support groups are anonymous and sharing feels safer.
Teens and online health info: How to tell that what you're reading isn't 'fake news'
First off, pay attention to the source of your info — don't just use Google and click the first couple pages that come up, but be picky about where you read up on your health. Some things to keep in mind are:
- Research studies are usually good sources, but they can be hard to understand. Government and inter-governmental websites — for instance the FDA, Medline Plus, World Health Organization, and CDC — usually offer reputable but more accessible information that anyone can understand.
- Reputable health websites, like SteadyHealth, will offer sources for all the important claims they make, so you can follow up on your own. They do not make outrageous claims without offering evidence. If a site mentions that "a study found..." but doesn't link to the study, or just says something like "acne gives you cancer" without backing it up with research, then that site isn't to be trusted.
- Is your source trying to sell something? That deserves extra scrutiny. If you're reading a sponsored ad on Facebook provided by the manufacturers of, I don't know, essential oils or some magic sticker that's meant to act as a pain reliever, well, keep reading — somewhere else — to see if you can verify their claims.
- If you're reading a personal blog or Facebook group with something like "vaccine truth (they're 100 percent poison)" or "how I lost 100 pounds in a week" in the title, just click the darn X on your tab, already.
Also pay attention to the date on which something you're reading was published. That study or book from 1930 or even 1985 might have been the best science had to offer at the time, but science moves fast. Always look for more recent information.
Some dubious claims are easy to spot, because they're quite literally unbelievable. If your Spidey senses are tingling, listen to them! But remember that even things that sound totally logical may not be true, so when it doubt, it's always good to check on multiple websites, including governmental ones.