By Leslie Mann, Special to the Tribune
July 18, 2012
Their parents joke that they spend so much time on their smartphones and computers, older teenagers are surgically attached to them. But spending a lot of time online does not necessarily mean they have the Internet search skills to find accurate information on birth control, according to a Northwestern University study.
For the study, Northwestern researchers gave 210 first-year college students from an urban college and a suburban college, both in the Midwest, this hypothetical scenario: A girlfriend calls you at midnight on a Friday during the summer. Her condom broke when she had sex with her boyfriend last night. What can she do to prevent pregnancy?
"We intentionally told them it was during the summer so they would not refer their friends to their colleges' medical clinics," said Eszter Hargittai, lead author of the study and associate professor of communication studies.
"Despite being on the Internet so much, we were surprised to see how few of them had the navigating skills to find credible information for their friends," said Hargittai. "And, we were surprised how many of them gave their friends inappropriate advice, such as 'wash your genitals,' 'wait it out' or 'buy a new condom.'"
Two-thirds of the participants concluded their friends should use emergency contraception ("morning after") pills. But only 40 percent knew they could be bought over the counter. Many told their friends to see their gynecologists for prescriptions for the pills. Three percent of the participants were unable to give their friends advice at all.
Emergency contraception pills prevent pregnancy by halting ovulation. They are used earlier than "abortion pills" including RU-486, which terminate pregnancies.
Most of the participants used a search engine, usually Google, to navigate the Internet for information. Thirty-one percent visited a Planned Parenthood site. Ten percent consulted morningafterpill.org for emergency contraception pill information, although it is a site opposed to the use of the emergency pill. Six percent consulted Wikipedia. Four percent visited a site run by the manufacturer of Plan B One-Step, a leading emergency contraception pill.
The participants were evenly split between male and female. Gender did not affect the results, said Hargittai.
"Young adults are much more likely than older adults to turn to the Internet as a resource when seeking health information," said Hargittai. "But this study tells us we need to incorporate more navigating lessons into the curricula — in college or earlier. They need to know how to search by the right terms and how to evaluate sources for credibility."
The study was published in the June issue of the journal Policy & Internet.
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