PUBLIC HEALTH
August 8, 2012

Google It? Maybe Not for Children's Health

Parents are a little too trusting of the children's health information they find on the Web. It pays to know how to look.

In 2010, more than half of the U.S. population took to the Web to find health information. Parents seeking health information about their children ranked among the top users of internet search engines. A new study shows, however, that they may want to take their online search results with a grain of salt and not trust their children's health to Google.

A team of researchers looked at a fairly common search among parents: how to keep babies safe when they are sleeping and avoid sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). They found that the results often do not reflect the sleep safety recommendations issued last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What makes this finding concerning is that they also found that 72 percent of adults thought that they could believe most or all of the health information they found online (including the inaccurate information on sleep safety). And worse, 70 percent of adults felt that information they found online affected their health or the steps they took to maintain their health or the health of their children.

Health websites that can be trusted should display the HONcode symbol from the Health On the Net Foundation in the lower right corner of their homepage. You can also find it in the bottom right margin of this page.

The researchers, led by Dr. Rachel Moon, pediatrician and SIDS researcher at Children's National Medical Center, Washington, D.C., checked the accuracy of information about infant sleep safety that they found online using Google, the leading search engine in the U.S. They came up with 13 search phrases that reflected specific AAP recommendations for infant sleep safety, and analyzed the top 100 search results for each phrase, looking at a total of 1,300 websites.

The study found that only 43.5 percent of the sites provided accurate information, 28.1 percent provided inaccurate information, and 28.4 percent provided information irrelevant to infant sleep safety. When the irrelevant websites were excluded, 60.8 percent of the websites provided accurate information.

What you search for can make a difference in the quality of information you find. The search terms that returned the highest percentage of accurate information were “infant cigarette smoking,” “infant sleep position,” and “infant sleep surface”; those that returned the highest percentage of inaccurate information were “pacifier infant,” “infant home monitor,” and “infant co-sleeping.”

The highest percentage of accurate information came from government and organizational websites (80.1 percent and 72.5 percent, respectively). The highest percentage of inaccurate information regarding infant sleep safety was found on blogs, retail product reviews, and personal websites (30.9 percent, 36.2 percent, and 45.5 percent, respectively). Accurate information was found on news websites 50 percent of the time.

The AAP sleep recommendations can be found here. Health websites that can be trusted should display the HONcode symbol from the Health On the Net Foundation in the lower right corner of their homepage. You can also find it in the bottom right margin of this page. Sites displaying this symbol adhere to the eight principles of the HONcode set forth by the HON Foundation, a nongovernment organization that was founded to promote the dissemination of quality health information online.

The study is published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

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