Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Dealing with "Generation"

In 2001, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a report called "Generation How Young People Use the Internet for Health Information." Though the report is a bit out of date (one might call it ancient using the WWW calendar), but it's the best information we have about teens and their online health information seeking habits.

Back then, 75% of online youth looked up health information (compare that to 80% who got information about TV, music, or movies and 72% of youth who downloaded music). About 1/4 of 15-24 year-olds got "a lot" of information about health on the internet. One can assume that these numbers are increasing as the Internet becomes a more common source of all sorts of information.

Lots of adults look up health information online too. In fact, the percentage of online adults looking up health information is about the same as the percentage of online youth -- 75-80% depending on the source.

What IS different is the percentage of health information seekers who look up sexual health information. In the adult world, the percentage is about 10%; for youth, it vaults to 44%.

This vast difference in the health concerns of younger vs. older people may not be a surprise, but it is not without its implications. Searching for information on health can be a tricky business. Youth need to be savvy internet searchers, able to come up with "safe" search terms that do not result in links that, while sexual, may not contain the information they seek. In my experience, learning how to search online has been a trial-and-error ordeal. We should make sure people actually learn how to look up information online. The basics are easy to learn; to become a master at finding exactly what you are looking for takes skill and instruction.

Even if someone manages to find an "answer" to their question about sex, the information is not necessarily accurate. Inaccurate information on the internet abounds. Inaccurate information about sexual health is everywhere. Put the two together and odds are it is likely that the sexual health information someone finds on the web may not be quality information. Again, we need to educate our youth -- and everyone -- how to identify quality health information.

Problem is, there is no set definition of what quality health information is. There are several organizations that provide guidelines or lists to help an online health information seeker determine the quality of the information they read.

For some of the courses I teach, I have come up with a very basic model to assess quality health information. I call it the ABCs Model of Quality. To judge the quality of online health information, ask yourself about

A: the Author. Who wrote the information you are reading? Is the author even identified? See whether a doctor, journalist, or layman is behind those words.
B: the Business model. How is the site being funded? By a drug company? A church? The government? Funding sources bias content.
C: Whether the information Current? What is the date on the article? When was the site last updated? Information changes quickly. Get the latest facts related to your question.
S: The Sources that are quoted in the article you are reading. Do they come from reputable journals, the wisdom of someone's grandfather or the Bible?

I am not going to say which sources are the best. Different people will have different opinions there. The trick is to be aware of the "who" behind the information you read. That way you can think about their biases, motivations, and likely sources. Then you can judge for yourself whether you want to believe what you read.

It would be nice if we taught our youth how to be critical internet consumers. Their health may depend on it.

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