How Health Sites Can Reach Youth

Young people want reliable, easily understood health advice online. Here's what a survey says they hope to find

Young people are flocking to the Web for information on health and wellness—but what they find there is sometimes anything but helpful. The Internet offers a wellspring of both lifesaving resources and harmful misinformation. For instance, a teenager considering suicide may find a Web site full of vetted resources on depression and a suicide hotline—or instead discover a Web ring full of other young people sharing tips on the best way to end their lives. The same goes for sites related to other challenges facing teens, such as eating disorders.

In the interest of helping connect young people with accurate health information on the Internet, I recently collaborated with two organizations, ISIS, a nonprofit organization working locally, nationally, and internationally to develop innovative sexual health resources through technology, and YouthNoise, an online community of young leaders dedicated to creating lasting positive change around the world. Together with Peanut Labs, we conducted an online survey of more than 1,600 teens and young adults aged 13 to 24 to find out how they are accessing health information online.

Our findings are likely to be of great interest to people, organizations, or companies hoping to provide health-related information to this demographic that's at once impressionable and influential. According to research by Yahoo! (YHOO), Carat, Harris Interactive (HPOL), and Teenage Research Unlimited, the roughly 50 million people in this age group in the U.S. account for an estimated $149 billion in direct spending, about 15% of it online.

• Search results matter. More than half of youth surveyed are searching the Internet for health and wellness information. Of those who do so, 15.1% cited WebMD (WBMD) as their source and 11.83% pointed to Google (GOOG). Wikipedia came in third. Search results are paramount in determining where youth end up going for this content. In my own work, I'm aware of hundreds of high quality, health-oriented sites designed specifically for young people, but none of these sites were named by the youth we surveyed, indicating a big challenge for companies and nonprofit organizations trying to reach youth with health information.

• Youth want information driven by peers, overseen by professionals. In the offline world, young people have always gone to friends for advice about sensitive health issues, so it should come as no surprise that youth would value input from their peers online. When you factor in how the Internet has transformed the dissemination of information from a one-way broadcast medium to an interactive medium where regular people can participate and become experts, there is a built-in expectation of an ability to be part of the conversation on any Web site. At the same time, the youth we surveyed acknowledged the important role of professionals in providing accurate information. Two sites that do a good job allowing both professional and peer voices are and

• Information should be comprehensive, yet easily digestible, fun, and interactive.

A generation raised on MTV, video games, and instant communication expects content to be bite-size, easy to consume, and engaging. The youth we surveyed told us they wanted health information that was "comprehensive and accurate" but also "not too technical." Their ideal site would present information in a "fun and interactive way."

• Anonymity can be liberating, but only in a safe online place. We often hear about online anonymity linked to negative stories about cyberbullying and how anonymity is abused in hurtful comments or posts from individuals hiding behind a fake screen name. The untold story is the role of online anonymity in helping young people talk about sensitive issues. Of those surveyed, 17% visited online confessional sites or message boards to share something personal; of those, 87% reported positive experiences. Respondents talked about this experience as a "relief." One said, "It felt like I could finally breathe." At the same time, youth also told us how important it is to moderate these spaces and "keep the haters out." That means sites need clearly delineated community standards and both moderators and users who can flag inappropriate comments.

• Publicize your resource. This is probably the most important message for anyone creating health-oriented sites geared to youth. It's also the most challenging in a media environment full of marketing messages on multiple screens. Unlike marketing soft drinks or promoting a new fragrance, health information is something young people are actively searching for. The trouble is, they don't know the names of the sites that reliably provide it. And even for those who aren't searching, discovering a health resource could still be beneficial or even lifesaving.

This means spending money and resources on optimizing your site for search engines. But you also have to go beyond expecting young people to find your site and work on creative ways of pushing out the resources you have to social networks, where youth already are spending lots of time. You have to go viral (no health pun intended) and look at creating applications, widgets, or videos to spread your message.

Reaching youth online with accurate, engaging health information is a challenge for both companies and nonprofit organizations. Understanding what youth are looking for in a health site, where they spend time online, and how they currently search for this information will help you serve this important demographic better. Click here to read the full report.

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