Teen Health and Technology: Most Seek Help Online

Unsurprisingly enough in the age of the Internet, a recent survey found that more than 80 percent of U.S. adolescents regularly turn to online sources for basic health information. Upward of a third of these teenagers subsequently change their health behaviors for the better. The survey, conducted by Northwestern University researchers, drew upon data from a nationally selected sample of 1,156 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18.

The Internet Remains a Secondary Source

>However, personal contacts still reign supreme for the majority of teenagers. In spite of its enormous popularity for social networks, the Internet fell into fourth place in the survey as a source of critical health advice. Parents, high-school health classes and professional health workers all ranked ahead of online sources, suggesting that most maturing preadults possess a healthy measure of skepticism about the reliability of the information they gather from a vast profusion of websites.

Primary Motivations and Persistence of Research

Although classroom assignments led the list of primary reasons for looking up health information from online sources, almost half of the surveyed teenagers were independently motivated by a desire to be healthier. Checking out the symptoms of current health problems for themselves, for friends or for family members also accounted for a significant proportion of online research.

Trust, Mistrust and Personal Relationships

In spite of a longstanding public perception that a decades-long explosion in the availability of online information and the rise of virtual social networks have gradually isolated younger individuals from family and other close personal relationships, the study showed that a clear majority of teenagers continue to lean heavily on their parents for trustworthy advice on health matters. However, health classes, health professionals and online sources seem to serve well enough for a smaller but still significant percentage of teenagers.

Being Strong, Healthy and Happy

Popular fitness routines, dietary advice and general nutritional concerns constituted the most attractive topics for both school assignments and spontaneous research. Following not far behind were the topics of coping with anxiety and stress, avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, navigating the tricky emotional waters of puberty, improving the quality of nightly sleep and understanding common mental health issues.

Better Eating and Exercise Habits

Given the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders in modern teenagers, most parents will be relieved to hear that many of the surveyed teenagers took to heart widespread advice on combating depressive mood swings with regular exercise. A fair number of adolescents also responded to their research results by reducing consumption of nutrition-poor, highly sugared beverages and increasing consumption of foods with healthier nutritional profiles.

Mixed Findings and Implications for Groupings

The study also found that lower-income students were less likely to access information from online sources even though they and their families tended to suffer from a greater variety and incidence of health problems, and perhaps four in ten of all surveyed teenagers spent time on researching such topics as risky drinking games, restricted tobacco products, side effects from bulimic or anorexic behaviors and other questionable pursuits. As might be expected, the lesson for parents and educators is that most teenagers continue to require close guidance and supervision for potentially harmful behaviors while being encouraged to develop their critical skills for evaluating the daily flood of information that barrages their developing minds.