Researchers predicted that when young adults received health information from medical providers, their knowledge would be superior to what other youth understood when they received information from the internet or family and friends.
To their surprise, they were only half right: A new study revealed that youth who relied on family and friends for health information are not as well-informed as those who relied on medical providers. But the young adults who rely on medical information from the internet were just as well-informed as those who talked with their doctors and other providers.1
The researchers found that respondents who relied on medical information from electronic media and healthcare providers tended to have better knowledge about human papillomavirus (HPV) than those who relied on healthcare information from family and friends.
Knowledge about HPV is very important and can lead to increased HPV vaccination rates, says Gabriel Benavidez, MPH, research assistant for the Rural and Minority Health Research Center, Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina.
“As we move into the next generation with internet, we wanted to look at the source of that knowledge and how it impacts having accurate information about HPV,” Benavidez says. “We wanted to see how their knowledge was impacted by where they got their information. Where they got their information will impact whether they get the vaccine.”
The study’s respondents obtained medical information mostly from electronic or print media (56.2%), followed by 26.7% from family and friends, and 17.1% from healthcare providers.
“Most people reported getting their information from electronic or print media, and most people get their information from news articles online or internet searches,” Benavidez says. “We also saw that non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics, and Latinos had a higher proportion of seeking information from their family and friends, compared with non-Hispanic whites, who had the highest proportion of seeking information from electronic or print media.”
Another demographic difference was that families with incomes of $75,000 or greater were the least likely to obtain information from healthcare providers and the most likely to learn about healthcare from the media.1
Investigators asked participants these questions:
- Have you ever heard of HPV?
- Do you think HPV can cause cervical cancer?
- Do you think HPV is a sexually transmitted disease?
- Have you heard of the HPV shot or vaccines?
“Those who got their information from family and friends had higher odds of answering questions wrong than if they got information from a healthcare provider,” Benavidez says.
For young adults who said their information came from electronic or print media, they were more than twice as likely to have heard of HPV and to answer the other three HPV questions correctly.
“We might be able to extrapolate this to other sexually transmitted infections [STIs],” Benavidez says. “We used questions to look at their knowledge about HPV vaccination, but we could have used that to look at their knowledge about lung cancer and breast cancer.”
Family and Friends Information Subjective
Researchers initiated the study to assess the effect of the media — and the internet in particular — on STI knowledge, Benavidez says. Their assumption was that people who received information from healthcare providers would have the best information, while people who sought information from family and friends or the internet and other media would be the least well-informed.
“Initially, we were thinking people who go to the internet for answers would have worse information,” he explains. “But the odds of their answering a question wrong were no different than if they had gotten the information from a healthcare provider.”
The only exception was that people who used the internet as their medical information source were less likely to say they knew HPV was an STI than people who received information from their healthcare provider, he adds.
“They had heard HPV might cause cervical cancer and has a vaccine, but they might not know it was sexually transmitted,” Benavidez says.
The researchers theorized that their original hypothesis that internet information-seekers would be less well-informed proved to be incorrect because of how sophisticated internet search algorithms are now, he notes.
“We were thinking about how Google search algorithms are very good,” Benavidez says. “If you go online and search, ‘What are the benefits of the HPV vaccine?’ the first things that come up are information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the National Cancer Institute.”
Search methods are so sophisticated now that people will immediately find the correct information, he adds. “People who get their information from the internet probably are getting accurate information based on what they’re searching for,” Benavidez says. “But when they go to family and friends, it’s more subjective.”
From a reproductive health provider’s perspective, this means that future interventions to educate young adults could include media sources, and also focus on educating patients’ entire families about STIs and contraception. “Once you have educated the family, then the whole family has accurate information to share,” Benavidez says. “Future information should target entire family units.”
One thing to note about internet searches is that they can provide accurate information when used correctly. “The internet, if you have negative beliefs, will reinforce those beliefs,” he says. “The search algorithms are so good that they will give you what you are looking for. The more you expose them to credible sources of information, the more likely they will use those sources of information.”
This suggests that healthcare providers can encourage patients to seek information from respected medical sources online and to abstain from looking for medical answers on YouTube and TikTok.
“Maybe, we should have medical professionals on those platforms,” Benavidez says. “There is a lot of research showing that healthcare provider information is very influential. That’s why we decided to use healthcare providers as a reference category and compare everyone else to them.”
- Benavidez G, Asare M, Lanning B, et al. Young adults’ human papillomavirus–related knowledge: Source of medical information matters. Public Health 2020;182:125-130.