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Teenagers Use Internet to Research Health Problems

Outline: National survey shows statistics regarding how and why teens today use online health information and digital tools.

Main Digest

At a time when teenagers are grappling with new and often confusing health concerns, the overwhelming majority (84 percent) turn to the Internet, according to the first national study in more than a decade to examine how adolescents use digital tools for health information.

But while most teens tap online sources to learn more about puberty, drugs, sex, depression and other issues, a surprising 88 percent said they do not feel comfortable sharing their health concerns with Facebook friends or on other social networking sites, according to the study by Northwestern University researchers.

The report yields important information for public health organizations trying to reach adolescents.

Nearly one third of the teenagers surveyed said the online information led to behavior changes, such as cutting back on soda, trying healthier recipes and using exercise to combat depression.

One in five teens surveyed, or 21 percent, meanwhile, have downloaded mobile health apps.

"We found some real surprises about what teens are doing online when it comes to their health," said Ellen Wartella, director of Northwestern's Center on Media and Human Development and lead author of the report.

"We often hear about all the negative things kids are doing online, but teens are using the Internet to take care of themselves and others around them," said Wartella, the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in Communication in Northwestern's School of Communication.

"The new study underscores how important it is to make sure there is accurate, appropriate and easily accessible information available to teens, because it's used and acted upon."

The Northwestern study, "Teens, Health & Technology," surveyed 1,156 American teenagers between 13 and 18 years old. It will be released June 2 at a Northwestern policy conference in Washington, D.C.

The researchers explored how often teens use online health tools, how much information they receive, what topics they are most concerned with, how satisfied they are with the information, what sources they trust and whether they have changed their health behaviors as a result.

"The Internet is clearly empowering teens to protect their health," said Vicky Rideout, head of VJR Consulting and a co-author of the report. "But we need to make sure they are equipped with the digital literacy skills to successfully navigate this online landscape."

Additional report findings include:

Rideout directed the research for Northwestern; the online survey panel was conducted by GfK Group.

The report is co-authored by Wartella, Rideout, Alexis Lauricella, associate director of the Center on Media and Human Development, Heather Zupancic a graduate student in media, technology and society and Leanne Beaudoin-Ryan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Media and Human Development. The complete methodology, questionnaire and top-line results are available in the full report.

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