Being a teenager is a very confusing time. Of course, asking any questions during a high school sex ed class is embarrassing, so most teens have to find a more discrete way to find the health information they desire. A recent study conducted at Northwestern University has found that 84 percent of teenagers turn to the Internet when dealing with new and confusing health concerns. One out of every five teens who responded to the survey have even downloaded mobile health apps.

"We found some real surprises about what teens are doing online when it comes to their health," Ellen Wartella, director of Northwestern's Center on Media and Human Development, said in a statement. "We often hear about all the negative things kids are doing online, but teens are using the Internet to take care of themselves and others around them. The new study underscores how important it is to make sure there is accurate, appropriate, and easily accessible information available to teens, because it's used and acted upon."

Wartella and her colleagues conducted the “Teens, Health & Technology” by surveying 1,156 American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18. Teens were asked how often they use online health tools, how much information they receive from these tools, how satisfied they are with that information, which sources they trust, and if their experience resulted in changing their health behaviors.

Eighty-eight percent of teens said they did not feel comfortable sharing their health concerns on social media. Although 84 percent of teens who responded to the survey said they used the Internet for health information, most teens said they got the majority of what they need from their parents. When it came to getting “a lot” of information, 55 percent of teens said they turned to their parents, 32 percent said health classes at school, 29 percent said medical providers, and 25 percent said the Internet.

Thirteen percent of teens said they turn to the Internet if they feel discussing a certain topic with their parents will be uncomfortable. Nearly one-third of teenagers said the information they received online led to healthier behavioral changes, such as drinking less soda, eating healthier food, and battling depression with exercise.

"The Internet is clearly empowering teens to protect their health," said Vicky Rideout, head of VJR Consulting and a co-author of the report. "But we need to make sure they are equipped with the digital literacy skills to successfully navigate this online landscape."

Among frequently visited websites, 31 percent of teens visited medical websites for health information while others used less-credible sources, such as YouTube, Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter. Depending on what sites they visit, many teens are exposed to negative health information. For example, 27 percent of teens came across drinking games while searching for health information, 25 percent stumbled upon outlets for purchasing tobacco and other nicotine products, 17 percent encountered how to be anorexic or bulimic sites, and 14 percent came across how to get or make illegal drugs.

Source: Lauricella A, Rideout V, Wartella E, et al. Teens turn to Internet to cope with health challenges. Northwestern Policy Conference. 2015.