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Technology holds a central place in the fabric of daily adolescent interactions. Adolescents use technology to connect with others through, for example, text messaging and social networking, and to gather information. The overwhelming majority of adolescents are online, typically for numerous hours each day, and have unprecedented access to information. This access may result in both positive and negative consequences for adolescent health and well-being, including access to useful health information and information encouraging high risk behaviors such as self-injury and restrictive eating.
Researchers have consistently demonstrated concern for the harmful effects of the mass media on children and adolescents and today, there are growing concerns regarding the potential dangers and impact of social media on the mental health and well-being of adolescent youth such as cyberbullying and “Facebook depression” in adolescents. Additionally, given the increase in mental disorders and the significant social stressors faced by adolescents, they may have emotional concerns with little knowledge about how to access appropriate resources and services. Adolescents may turn to the Internet for answers but they are susceptible to inaccurate information because they may fail to critically evaluate the quality of the source responsible for content. Given the abundance and diversity of information on the Internet, standard credibility assessment strategies and techniques are potentially problematic. Adolescent users often rely on others to make judgments about credibility in their search for information as a means of wading through copious amounts of information. Specifically, adolescents state the significance of both online and offline social networks to find, evaluate, and verify online information pertaining to potential purchases, health care options, and hobbies or special interests. With adolescents’ increasing use of media and its potential influence on their mental and physical health, important lines of scientific inquiry include understanding more about their online behavior and, specifically, how the Internet is placed in the broader context of qualitatively-sound health information resources available to them.
The Internet undoubtedly serves as a potentially powerful resource for adolescents who seek sensitive information related to their mental health concerns. Researchers indicate that adolescents most often search the Internet for information about depression, anxiety, stress, suicide, and substance abuse. During the past decade, several researchers have examined the impact of digital media use on adolescent health. These researchers have concluded that youth report positive perceptions of online health information. However, few studies within this growing body of literature have examined how adolescents use the Internet to access mental health information. Additionally, relatively little is known about the characteristics of Internet health information seekers. Research examining the profile of such users, how adolescents navigate the Internet to obtain health information, and whether users are addressing their developmental needs through this use, may provide useful information to inform health interventions directed to adolescents.
In an exploratory study assessing how adolescents use the Internet to access health information, Borzekowski and Rickert administered a survey to diverse samples of New York City adolescents. Their findings suggested that Internet use was common among urban adolescents and that they sought similar health information to that of adults. Of those adolescents who regularly used the Internet, nearly half indicated using the Internet to acquire health information. In this case, 18% of health information sought was related to mental health issues. These findings conformed to those of other researchers. Borzekowski and Rickert also found that most adolescents valued the Internet as a reliable source for health information; few adolescents regarded Internet-presented health information as potentially unreliable. Other researchers have echoed these findings. However, little research examining the quality and veracity of mental health content on the Internet has been conducted, especially examining sites targeted to adolescents. Additionally, researchers have only recently examined the extent to which adolescents use the digital media to fulfill developmental needs.