Wired for health: you can find plenty of health advice online. But is any of it trustworthy?

Let’s say you have a “friend” with an embarrassing health problem. And let’s say that friend doesn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about it. But the person wants to know what’s going on with his or her body–and fast. Hypothetically speaking, whom might your friend ask?

embarrassing-problemIf you guessed “Google,” you’re not alone. There’s a good reason the situation above sounds familiar. Approximately half of all American teens now use the Internet to get the scoop on health topics ranging from sexually transmitted diseases to diet and exercise. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand why. The Web is a quick way to find information on just about any subject. But even more important, it’s confidential. Questions about eating disorders, abuse, and other personal topics can be difficult to discuss face-to-face. The Internet offers an easy way for teens to explore awkward questions without embarrassment.

But Web answers are worthwhile only if you know where to get the best information. Many teens don’t. “Although students may be experts at finding online music or movie reviews, research shows that these skills will not necessarily help them find high-quality health information online,” says Derek Hansen, a researcher from the University of Michigan School of Information. In 2004, Hansen and his colleagues designed an experiment to see how middle and high school students went about using the Web to find answers to specific health questions, such as “What foods are healthy for a diabetic to eat?” The results? “The teens were unable to find the answer to about one-third of the questions,” Hansen says.

Are Net-savvy youths really in the dark about how to find reliable health information? Current Health put Hansen’s theory to the test, pitting teen volunteers against the Wild, Wild Web in a search for medical knowledge.

The Web Search Begins

Like 60 percent of American teenagers, Eric, Madison, and Patrick–three high schoolers from Highland, N.Y.–are regular commuters on the information superhighway. “I go online every day to IM friends and download songs,” Eric says, and Patrick and Madison use the Internet for homework, clothes shopping, and games. CH asked these Net know-it-alls to do an online search to find the causes of, and treatments for, a common teen problem: acne.

CH looked on as the search team went to work. The three started by entering the word acne into the search engine Google. The first 10 of a whopping 3.2 million results popped up. The first site on the list touted the virtues of a certain pimple cream, showing zit-free photos of Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. “I’ve seen a commercial on TV for this [product],” says Eric. Madison chimes in with his own assessment. “I’d trust this site,” he says. “If celebrities say it’s good, maybe I’d use it.”

Other sites near the top of the list had little to say about acne causes or prevention. After a half hour of searching, the trio finally found a site near the bottom of the page, www.acne.org, that had a diagram illustrating how acne breakouts occur, a list of acne myths, and a page of FAQs. “Wow, I thought chocolate did cause zits,” comments Eric. “This site is a lot better than the other stuff we’ve been looking at.”

Important Online Clues

health-issuesHow can you tell if the sites you find are any good? To evaluate medical Web sites, use these important clues.

* Whose Site Is It? When you click on a site, look to see who is responsible for its content. Sites sponsored by reliable health organizations usually have a logo or banner clearly visible on the home page.

Knowing a site’s URL can be helpful too. Addresses ending in .com most often indicate a commercial site, which means that the owner is a business. Be aware that those sites exist to sell you something. Actors and singers are sometimes paid to endorse the products or services mentioned on the sites; unlike Madison, you shouldn’t trust a site’s info just because a celebrity says you should. Know that there are noncommercial alternatives for online information. University and educational organization sites usually end in .edu, nonprofit groups use .org, and government agencies use .gov.

Also check the site’s “About Us” page. “The purpose of a Web site is related to who runs and pays for it,” says Deborah Pearson, a public health nurse with the National Cancer Institute.

* Sponsored Searches. Remember that popular search engines are businesses too. “Some Internet search engines ‘sell’ top space to advertisers who pay them to do so,” reports Elizabeth Kirk, author of the Johns Hopkins University’s Sheridan Libraries site on Web information. Those companies realize that most people automatically click on the first site that pops up–just as Eric and his friends did. Simply because a site is listed first does not mean it is the best resource.

* Author or Authority? Is the author of the site’s content listed on the page? If so, the page “should give biographical information, including the author’s position, institutional affiliation, and address,” according to Kirk. Having trouble deciding if a site is legit? The online directory MedlinePlus checks out medical sites and lists only those deemed reliable, explains Dr. Nell Izenberg, a professor of pediatrics at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

* The Latest Info. Advances in health and medicine happen every day. Look to see if a site indicates when it was last updated. If the page hasn’t been revised since 1998, you are surely not getting the latest news. Another giveaway to an outdated site can be its external links; click on a few and see if they take you to active pages. “More than a few ‘dead’ links could mean that the site is not well maintained,” according to the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Search Skills

Still having trouble finding what you need? That’s not unusual. Students in Hansen’s experiment made several basic mistakes. “Search terms were frequently misspelled, and some students would quickly scroll up and down a page, missing the answer even when it was available,” Hansen says.

To avoid those pitfalls, refine your search technique. “Use the spell correction feature,” he advises, “and provide additional search terms if the results are too general.” For example, had our teen searchers entered the term acne causes instead of just acne, they would have found relevant sites sooner.

Another tip: Slow down. “Several times, students who were unable to answer a question had actually visited a site where the answer was available–but they gave up on the site too early,” Hansen says.

Diagnosis: See Your M.D.

At last you’ve navigated your way to a site that provides reliable, up-to-date information. You’ve found out all there is to know about that hangnail on your pinkie. End of story? Not quite. Online info isn’t meant to help you diagnose yourself. If you’re concerned that you might have a medical condition, talk to your parents or family doctor. “Any Web site that tries to diagnose you online can’t be trusted,” says Izenberg.

Four sites for sore eyes.

Looking for a medical-information site that won’t make your eyes glaze over? If so, join the club. “Many sites assume more medical knowledge than adolescents typically possess, or [they] present the information in such a sterile manner that teens are typically turned off by it,” says Derek Hansen of the University of Michigan.

CH did some surfing and came up with four trustworthy, user-friendly health sites.

1. www.teenshealth.org. This site is full of solid information on countless issues. Fun facts and quizzes, as well as stimulating graphics, keep it lively. The site is operated by the Nemours Foundation, an educational health organization.

2. www.pamf.org/teen. Maintained by California’s Palo Alto Medical Foundation, this site has sections on drugs and alcohol, dealing with emotions, and sexual health. In addition to an “ask the expert” link, the site also lists help lines and hotlines and has a prescription drug database.

3. www.iwannaknow.org. This site by the American Social Health Association addresses sexual health and STDs in a no-nonsense way. The site has a live forum for online chat, a glossary of terms, and an “ask the expert” link.

4. www.ipl.org/div/teen. The University of Michigan School of Information’s Teenspace site has sections on health topics, including hygiene, sex, and eating disorders, as well as links to info on careers, dating, and conflict resolution.

Web Stats

What health subjects areĀ 15-to 25-year-olds researching online?

Specific diseases 50%
Sexual health 44%
Weight 25%
Drugs or alcohol 23%
Mental illness 23%
Violence 23%
Smoking 19%

Source: Generation
Rx.com: How Young
People Use the Internet
for Health Information,
Kaiser Family Foundation
Sparling, Polly