75 Percent of Youth Look for Health on Net

Dec. 11, 2001 -- More young people get health information from the Internet than use it to download music, play games, or check sports scores, a new survey finds.

"Young people aren't just going online to download the latest song from the Red Hot Chili Peppers or look for information on George Clooney's latest movie," said Vicky Rideout, the vice president and director of the program for the study of entertainment media and health for the Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducted the survey. "They're also looking for information on health issues that are really important to them."

The foundation polled 1,209 Americans aged 15 to 24 between Sept. 24 and Oct. 31. It found three out of four young people who use the Internet have searched for health and medical information. In fact, the only activities that more young people reported paticipating in were e-mailing, school research, and finding news and entertainment information.

The survey, which has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points, is the first to look in depth at how young people use the Internet for health purposes. For comparison, adult-use surveys, such as The Pew Internet and American Life Project, report that only 60 percent of online adults use the Internet to find health information.

Online Sex Ed

Nearly half of the young people surveyed use the Internet to access information on sexual health — not surprising, considering that a vast majority listed sexual health issues such as pregnancy, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases as being "very important." Drug abuse and sexual assault were also considered "very important" topics by roughly three out of four surveyed.

Experts agree that the confidentiality and convenience that the Internet provides makes it a likely choice for young people who might be too embarrassed to discuss sexual issues with their parents or doctors.

"It may be something they don't want their parents to know about, an STD [sexually transmitted disease] or something like that they would much rather go to the Internet than to a parent," said Dr. Robert Johnson, the director of adolescent and young adult medicine at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J.

The study also found that 70 percent of those under 18 reported accidentally coming across pornography Web sites — a disturbing number considering that nearly 40 percent of those surveyed said they changed their own behavior based on information they got online.

Even though schools and libraries have filters to screen out such sites, they don't prevent access to all pornographic sites, and sometimes block access to legitimate information.

Quality Information?

Fortunately, the survey also found that young people seem to be quite savvy when it comes to discerning quality health information. While almost all said Web information is useful, many reported being skeptical about the quality of information.

Only 17 percent say they trust the information on the Internet "a lot," as compared to 85 percent who say they trust the information they get from their doctor.

Dr. Gretchen Berland, a professor of medicine at Yale University, recommends a few strategies that can help young users avoid bad information on the Internet:

Set aside some time to really look up the information, and go back more than once.

Don't rely on just one source.

Try using government and medical association sites as solid starting points.

Look for references.

Be skeptical of sites that try to sell you something.

If you have questions, take them to someone you trust.