There may be no more sensitive issue today for parents to tackle than discussing sexuality with their maturing teenage children.
Whether you’ve fostered an open dialogue with them about the subject, or you’re delaying the conversations with unrelenting trepidation, parents should factor in the influence of the World Wide Web on their teens.
The Internet has become a frequent source of health information for adults, from WebMD to the Mayo Clinic. At the same time, online resources for sexual health information from oral contraceptives to sexually transmitted diseases are readily available to youth, say researchers, and they need to be assessed for their accuracy.
In a research overview article published in the September 2012 issue of “Israel Journal of Health Policy Research — The Internet, teenagers, and sexual health information: a cautionary tale,” Doctor and Professor Freya Sonenstein, director of the Center for Adolescent Health in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, warns that even though the use of health information sites varies among groups of teens, the veracity, reliability, credibility, and accessibility of many sites is unreliable at best.
“The findings are worrisome,” wrote Sonenstein in her paper. “Unfortunately, the sites providing the most accurate and complete information about oral contraceptives had the lowest ratings on credibility.…Teenagers may also be limited by the search engines that they use. If they are using computers in public schools or libraries, these engines may have monitors that limit access to certain information.”
Sonenstein also reported that abstinence-teaching policies in many U.S. schools that exclude sex education, as well as religious and cultural influences, also play a part in the availability of information — or lack thereof.
In her report, Sonenstein relied heavily on evidence from a large Israeli study, “Quality of Online Health Information About Oral Contraceptives,” which analyzed the information contained in 29 Israeli sexual health websites. The study was conducted by Dr. Yehuda Neumark and his team at the Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine at Hebrew University–Hadassah in Jerusalem.
In the study, also published in the September 2012 issue of the journal, Neumark evaluated 29 Hebrew-language Israeli websites for accuracy, credibility, and usability. He then classified the selected sites into categories that included health maintenance organizations, contraception-specific websites, a health portal, promotional and commercial sites, women’s health sites, and lifestyle sites.
Using the Health on the Net Foundation code of conduct guidelines, Neumark found that the information contained in slightly over 50 percent of sites was unreliable, providing either incomplete or inaccurate information. Each of the sites also earned an average rating of 70 percent credibility or believability, which monitored the inclusion of disclosures such as funding sources, authors, dates for original content creation and updates, specific references to evidence-based data, citations, and references.
“The findings highlight the need to establish quality guidelines for health website content, train(ing) health care providers in assisting their patients to seek high quality OHI (online health information), and strengthen(ing) e-health literacy skills among online information seekers, including, perhaps, health professionals,” according to Neumark.
In Israel, according to the results of another recent study by the Israel Ministry of Education, which Neumark referenced, more than 7,000 middle school and high school students from the 7th to the 12th grade documented their Internet use and health information searches in the prior year.
The results showed that of the 50 percent of Israeli youth who have Internet access use it to find health information, 70 percent use three search engines. While one-third said they were alert for biases, 43 percent said they researched the veracity of the information they found there.
According to other study data, nearly a third of girls in the 12th grade hadn’t had sex, 40 percent of the sexually active adolescents used oral contraceptives, and nearly 15 percent of females under 20 years old had pursued an abortion.
Additionally, one-quarter of Israeli adolescents conducted online health searches for information on oral contraceptives. American students, on the other hand, did far less research than their Israeli counterparts.
“In the U.S.…the most frequent use of the Internet by 12- to 17-year-olds is social networking,” added Sonenstein. “The next most frequent use is multi-media and entertainment….So although teenagers occasionally seek health information on the Internet, they are not doing it frequently. Moreover, qualitative data, again collected in the U.S., indicates that teens are mistrustful of the Internet as a source of sexual health information.”