Teenagers aren't just planning parties on MySpace and other social networking sites—they're also learning how to manage asthma and other serious diseases. And the advice they find is often wrong.
That's the startling finding from researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, who searched MySpace for information on managing asthma and found 195 forums and 36 groups on the subject. Many of the posts contained misinformation, the researchers found, including this doozy: Cocaine helps my asthma. ( Not true, FYI.)
Other information was correct, such as the advice to rinse and gargle after using Advair, a common asthma medication, to avoid getting a mouth and throat infection. How to sort the true from the bogus? Jennifer Knopf Munafo, a project specialist in the division of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children's who led the survey, says: "I think skeptical is a good term." Here are three ways to cull the bad and keep the good:
- Look for health information from sites that end in dot-gov, dot-edu, and dot-org for information that's not affiliated with a company hawking drugs or supplements. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, for one, has solid info on asthma. The "Quest for the Cure" game lets kids learn about asthma triggers and treatment in a game format.
- Be wary of bogus links in posts. Munafo found that 73 percent of the links went to commercial sites, but only 40 percent of those had anything to do with asthma.
- Parents should ask their teenagers what they're learning online and help them evaluate good sources and trusted sites. (Here's the 411 on MySpace for parents from my colleague Michelle Andrews.)
Social networking can be a powerful tool for teenagers (and adults) to get support and information when dealing with chronic health problems. Munafo, whose report is published in the January Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, says she's working on how to use the power of social networking sites "for good instead of misinformation."
For more on how teenagers use social networking to discuss risky behaviors including sex, drinking, and drug use, check out Lindsay Lyon's report on how parents can control teenagers' risky behaviors.