Study: Teens Use Digital Tools To Inform Health Care Decisions

June 2, 2015 in News

Nearly one-third of teenagers said they use online information to inform health-related decisions and transition to healthier habits, according to a study released Tuesday, the Washington Post reports.

Study Details

According to the Post, the study was the first in more than 10 years to analyze how teens use digital tools to access and use health information (Sun, Washington Post, 6/2).

For the study, researchers at Northwestern University surveyed 1,156 teenagers between ages 13 and 18 (Hoffman, “Well,” New York Times, 6/2). Those from English-speaking households were polled last fall, while those in Spanish-speaking families were surveyed in March.

The survey asked teens about:

  • The topics they were most concerned about;
  • Their use of online tools;
  • Their most-trusted online sources; and
  • Whether they changed their health behavior.

Online Health Information Findings

Overall, the study found that 84% of teens said they used the Internet to look up health information.

Teens most often searched online for information about:

  • Fitness and exercise, which accounted for 42% of searches;
  • Diet and nutrition, which accounted for 36% of searches;
  • Stress or anxiety, which accounted for 19% of searches;
  • Sexually transmitted infections, which accounted for 18% of searches;
  • Puberty, which accounted for 18% of searches; and
  • Depression or other mental health issues, which accounted for 16% of searches.

According to the study, 23% of respondents said they had gone online to research information on a condition affecting family or friends. Of those:

  • 31% were low-income teens; and
  • 18% were higher-income teens.

However, the survey found that most teenagers reported just reading the first few sites that appeared in an online search. In addition, the teens said that the information found often was densely written or failed to directly address their concerns (“Well,” New York Times, 6/2).

Vicky Rideout, a co-author of the study, said, “We need to make sure there is good information for teens online” (Washington Post, 6/2).

Mobile Health Findings

Among teenagers with mobile devices, the study found 29% — or 21% of all teens — said they had downloaded a mobile health application. Fitness and nutrition-related apps were the most commonly downloaded apps.

Of those who had downloaded a mobile heath app, the study found:

  • 47% said they hardly ever or never use them;
  • 45% said they sometimes use them; and
  • 8% said they often use them.

The study also found that 91% of all teenagers have never used a wearable health device, such as a Fitbit fitness tracker.

Behavior Change Findings

The study also found that changes in health behavior varied by which digital tool was used:

  • 36% of teens who have used a mobile health app said they changed their behavior because of the app;
  • 34% of teens who have looked for health information online said they changed their behavior because of what they found; and
  • 17% of those who have used a wearable device said they changed their behavior because of the device (Northwestern University study, June 2015).
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