By Dr. Leslie Farmer
Dr. Leslie Farmer, a Professor at California State University Long Beach, coordinates the Librarianship program. A frequent presenter and author of 30 books for the profession, she won American Library Association’s 2011 Phi Beta Mu Award for library education. Dr. Farmer is also the President of the California School Libraries Foundation.
Teens need and want information about health issues. Even though teens tend to prefer asking people for help, increasingly they access digital resources because of the Internet’s availability, affordability, and anonymity.
The range of health information sought by teenagers demonstrates varied needs: illnesses, accidents, chronic conditions, STDs including HIV/AIDS, nutrition, fitness, sexual activity, pregnancy, and mental health issues. The most popular topics deal with sexual health and drugs. Teens tend to seek information out of need or fear, such as a personal problem, rather than as a proactive effort to be healthy, such as eating nutritionally, or avoiding pregnancy. On the other hand, they would look for information that might avoid “genes as destiny” syndrome or counteract past poor health choices. Some may also seek health information to address some kind of social stigma that is health-based, such as acne.
Several barriers to health information exist. Teens can be ignorant about some aspects of health and do not have a sound knowledge base on which to determine the validity of health advice. Nor does it help that filtering software further limits students’ access to valuable online health information. Some teens are struggling readers or may have language barriers. Even so-called digital natives may have technology deficiencies or have poor physical access to technology. In addition, attitudes and expectations about health are culturally contextually; for instance, in some cultures, health is a private concern, and in other cultures, hospitals are a place to die rather than to get well. In addition, notable subgroups at higher risk in terms of health information seeking include youth with special needs such as disabilities, GLBT, teenage parents, rural youth, illiterate teens, poor teens, and teens of color.
While most teens use the Internet frequently, they may have limited health savviness, then it can be even harder to discern the quality of Internet-delivered health information. Furthermore, youth tend to generalize the quality of Internet sources rather than compare and prefer specific sites based on relative authority. Sometimes there may be too much information to sift through, and other times there is a dearth of information (e.g., few online resources address deaf issues).
It should also be noted that the motivation for seeking health information impacts the searching strategy. For example, teens are more likely to view pro-drug websites than anti-drug websites, even in the face of strong anti-drug media campaigns, although girls were more likely to view the anti-drug sites. Teens who have had been given prior drug prevention information are more likely to be curious and seek drug information. Youth with drug-using friends and who have more unsupervised time are more likely to use the Internet, and to access pro-drug digital resources. They tend to want to find information that confirms their existing stances.
Educators can serve as important mediators in teen health information seeking behaviors. They can:
- Provide developmentally appropriate health websites
- Provide community resources referrals
- Provide health-related programming
- Teach how to search and evaluate information
- Teach/facilitate health literacy, and collaborate with health educators
- Train teens as peer health Internet navigators. Peer coaching also improve self-efficacy and reinforces the concept of networked intelligence.
As educators understand the developmental and social cognitive issues behind information seeking behaviors, they can connect with youth, gain their trust, and personalize the information task.
PBS LearningMedia resources and lesson plans can help teens explore issues of drug addiction – either as part of a class unit, a teacher-led learning activity, or as a personal concern. Here are appropriate resources:
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