Background: Adolescents' access to health information on the Internet is partly a function of their ability to search for and find answers to their health-related questions. Adolescents may have unique health and computer literacy needs. Although many surveys, interviews, and focus groups have been utilized to understand the information-seeking and information-retrieval behavior of adolescents looking for health information online, we were unable to locate observations of individual adolescents that have been conducted in this context.
Objective: This study was designed to understand how adolescents search for health information using the Internet and what implications this may have on access to health information.
Methods: A convenience sample of 12 students (age 12-17 years) from 1 middle school and 2 high schools in southeast Michigan were provided with 6 health-related questions and asked to look for answers using the Internet. Researchers recorded 68 specific searches using software that captured screen images as well as synchronized audio recordings. Recordings were reviewed later and specific search techniques and strategies were coded. A qualitative review of the verbal communication was also performed.
Results: Out of 68 observed searches, 47 (69%) were successful in that the adolescent found a correct and useful answer to the health question. The majority of sites that students attempted to access were retrieved directly from search engine results (77%) or a search engine's recommended links (10%); only a small percentage were directly accessed (5%) or linked from another site (7%). The majority (83%) of followed links from search engine results came from the first 9 results. Incorrect spelling (30 of 132 search terms), number of pages visited within a site (ranging from 1-15), and overall search strategy (eg, using a search engine versus directly accessing a site), were each important determinants of success. Qualitative analysis revealed that participants used a trial-and-error approach to formulate search strings, scanned pages randomly instead of systematically, and did not consider the source of the content when searching for health information.
Conclusions: This study provides a useful snapshot of current adolescent searching patterns. The results have implications for constructing realistic simulations of adolescent search behavior, improving distribution and usefulness of Web sites with health information relevant to adolescents, and enhancing educators' knowledge of what specific pitfalls students are likely to encounter.