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Teens and the Net

By Melissa Hendricks

When teenagers want information about health, they’re apt to turn to the Internet for answers. “What do they remember? What engages them? We need to better understand what appeals to them,” says Dina L.G. Borzekowski, an assistant professor of Population and Family Health Sciences. 

Borzekowski is doing research to answer those questions—answers that could ultimately help website developers create health information sites that reach, inform and persuade more teens. In her study, Borzekowski poses health-related questions to teen volunteers and then asks them to search for answers on the Internet. Volunteers then complete a questionnaire designed to assess what they remember from their Internet reading and viewing. Throughout the cybersurfing session, several high-tech tools collect information about how the teenagers use the Net. A small infrared camera tracks their eye movements while a software program captures the images that appear on the computer monitor. A program then superimposes the eye movement data onto the images collected from the monitor. The researchers can then play back the session and follow exactly where the volunteer’s gaze was at all times. Another tool called clickstream technology keeps track of every Web page visited and the length of time spent there.

 Borzekowski is analyzing the data generated by the volunteers who have participated in the study so far. (She has made a few observations. To wit: “We all think kids are very savvy about using the Web. I’ve been somewhat startled with how poor some of their research skills are.”) Her results might reveal that teens prefer to get health information from websites with more graphics than text (or vice versa). Or that teens gravitate toward sites featuring interactive formats, or perhaps Q&As.

 One thing’s for sure: Teenagers are hungry for information about health. Borzekowski’s earlier research showed that sex (specifically sexual activity, contraception and pregnancy) topped the list of most-wondered-about health topics. The Internet has enormous potential for informing teenagers who might not otherwise seek answers to important health questions, says Borzekowski. “The Internet is confidential, non-punitive. It’s an easy-access source for kids.”