- Information published by medical societies, health organizations, and the government are reliable sources of information.
- Not all health information on the web is reliable.
- Check out websites before recommending them to others.
The internet is a major source of information about health, but just because the information is published online doesn’t mean that it’s reliable. Sometimes a website that looks trustworthy is based on opinions rather than facts, and sometimes the information is just plain wrong. With so much information out there, how do you decide what to believe? Before recommending a website to your son or daughter to read, think critically about the quality and accuracy of the information contained on the site.
Question the source of the information
Here are some questions to help you evaluate the health information:
Who wrote it?
- Is the author or organization name listed?
- Is there “About Us” information on the website?
- Is the author or organization credible?
- Is there a way to contact the author?
- Does the author have experience or credentials in the topic?
Is the information accurate?
- Does the site credit sources such as textbooks, journal articles, and/or other respectable websites?
- Do the sources actually support what the author is saying?
- Is the information clearly organized, and is it free from spelling and grammatical errors?
Is the author biased?
- Is the author trying to promote a product, idea, or agenda?
- Is there advertising or other commercial sponsorship presented along with the information?
- Does the site seem to promote a personal opinion, or uses statements such as “from my own experience,” to reflect the opinion of an individual rather than scientific fact?
- What type of language does the website use? Does it explain information in a straightforward way, or does it use sensationalized, exaggerated wording?
- Is a variety of information presented, or just one point of view?
Is the information current?
- Is the information up-to-date? Is there a ‘last updated’ date?
- Does the information seem out-of-date based on other information you have read about or know?
So how can I find reputable health information online?
Visit reliable websites first. Does the URL include the name of a respected health organization (like plannedparenthood.org), or a government site (like cdc.gov), both of which tend to be more reliable? Or, is the website a company or business (like cosmopolitan.com), or a news site (like buzzfeed.com), which tend to be less reliable or accurate? Always check to see if the website is affiliated with a reputable hospital, healthcare system, or government agency.
Don’t be fooled by website claims. Be alert to websites that credit themselves as the only source of the information or if the site posts negative comments about other sources of information.
Check more than one website. Visit multiple websites in order to compare information from different authors and health organizations. If several different reliable websites are saying the same thing, then there is a good chance that it is accurate information. Health information and treatments change all the time, so old information may no longer be accurate.
Use websites aimed at patients. It is important that your teen reads health information created for patients, instead of information created for doctors and nurses, which can be more technical and difficult to understand. Check whether the website is age-appropriate. For example, if intended for teens, it should be teen-friendly and written at an appropriate reading level.
Avoid social media for health information. Some health information shared through social media is reliable, but a lot of information is incorrect—and even dangerous! If your teen comes across something health-related on social media and wants to know more, always have them double check with a reliable source.
Wikipedia shouldn’t be your first choice. Wikipedia will most likely appear on the first page of search results, and while it is good for a quick review and to find links to other sources, do not rely on it as a primary source of health information.
There is more than Google. Instead of turning to Google to search for their health concerns, your teen should start by searching MedlinePlus, which is a health website offered by the National Library of Medicine (the world’s largest medical library). MedlinePlus is like a search engine that only searches through accurate health information. All of the results have been reviewed to make sure that only up-to-date, reliable websites are included.
Use common sense. If the information appears unprofessional, it probably is. Compare the information that your teen finds on a website with information from other trustworthy sites.
Let go of your cyberchondria. If you find that your teen is constantly googling about a health issue and it’s making them anxious, have them talk with a trusted adult or make an appointment with a healthcare provider. It can be easy for teens to diagnose themselves based on what they read online, but it is not a substitute for professional advice.
When in doubt: Ask. If you are ever unsure as to whether a website is reliable or not, you can approach a librarian at a public library, who will guide you through the website evaluation process. You can also ask your child’s doctors, nurses, school nurses, nutritionists, therapists, and even dentists about health information that your teen finds online. Often times clinicians will be able to provide your teen with patient information printed from reliable websites.