How to Find Accurate Health Information Online

Does conflicting information on the Internet leave you scratching your head? Image: David Castillo Dominici /

Does conflicting information on the Internet leave you scratching your head? Image: David Castillo Dominici /

Did you know only 13 states require that sex education in public schools be medically accurate? This leaves a lot of people in the dark when it comes to making decisions that could have a lasting impact on their lives. Luckily, the Internet can make accurate information about sex accessible. It can also be a dangerous tool if wielded incorrectly, so it’s important to differentiate sources of good information from unreliable sources. An article in the New York Times suggests that the No. 1 way teenagers get their information about sex is through the Internet. Whether or not they receive medically accurate information depends on their search results.

You can’t assume that a product’s legality is evidence of its efficacy.

The Internet is a maze of conflicting information. Most reputable authors will cite their sources, and it’s important that you check them. Online message boards can be filled with anonymous commenters offering opinions, anecdotes, falsehoods, or facts — unless these commenters back their statements up with sources, it may be difficult for you to evaluate their claims. A message board dealing with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) might seem like an ideal outlet for someone who is concerned about having an STD; other message boards dealing with sex or contraception offer a similar refuge. Users might appreciate the anonymity afforded by such online communities, but it’s important to remember that the people there are also anonymous. The Internet “hive mind” cannot substitute for a professional diagnosis, scientific consensus, or medically sound advice.

Other dubious sources of information might include “alternative health” websites. Many of these practitioners give good advice, like to quit smoking, start exercising, and eat fresh fruits and vegetables. We can’t argue with that. Sometimes, though, these communities can encourage the use of unproven remedies in place of effective treatments. A quick Google search for “natural contraception” can lead you to websites promoting mixtures of herbs for preventing pregnancy, and a search for “herpes cures” might leave you thinking that earwax or homeopathy can stop an outbreak in its tracks. Nonscientific ideas about the immune system also give rise to medically inaccurate statements about vaccines, such as the idea that “natural” HPV infections are preferable to being vaccinated with Gardasil — despite the facts that natural HPV infections might not confer effective immunity against re-infection and can lead to cancer. Continue reading