Online health information is of variable and often low scientific quality. In particular, elderly less-educated populations are said to struggle in accessing quality online information (digital divide). Little is known about (1) how their online behavior differs from that of younger, more-educated, and more-frequent Web users, and (2) how the older population may be supported in accessing good-quality online health information.
To specify the digital divide between skilled and less-skilled Web users, we assessed qualitative differences in technical skills, cognitive strategies, and attitudes toward online health information. Based on these findings, we identified educational and technological interventions to help Web users find and access good-quality online health information.
We asked 22 native German-speaking adults to search for health information online. The skilled cohort consisted of 10 participants who were younger than 30 years of age, had a higher level of education, and were more experienced using the Web than 12 participants in the less-skilled cohort, who were at least 50 years of age. We observed online health information searches to specify differences in technical skills and analyzed concurrent verbal protocols to identify health information seekers’ cognitive strategies and attitudes.
Our main findings relate to (1) attitudes: health information seekers in both cohorts doubted the quality of information retrieved online; among poorly skilled seekers, this was mainly because they doubted their skills to navigate vast amounts of information; once a website was accessed, quality concerns disappeared in both cohorts, (2) technical skills: skilled Web users effectively filtered information according to search intentions and data sources; less-skilled users were easily distracted by unrelated information, and (3) cognitive strategies: skilled Web users searched to inform themselves; less-skilled users searched to confirm their health-related opinions such as “vaccinations are harmful.” Independent of Web-use skills, most participants stopped a search once they had found the first piece of evidence satisfying search intentions, rather than according to quality criteria.
Findings related to Web-use skills differences suggest two classes of interventions to facilitate access to good-quality online health information. Challenges related to findings (1) and (2) should be remedied by improving people’s basic Web-use skills. In particular, Web users should be taught how to avoid information overload by generating specific search terms and to avoid low-quality information by requesting results from trusted websites only. Problems related to finding (3) may be remedied by visually labeling search engine results according to quality criteria.
Feufel MA, Stahl SF. What do web-use skill differences imply for online health information searches? J. Med. Internet Res. 2012 Jun 13;14(3):e87.