Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Many teens cannot discern true online health messages from fake ones

“As adolescents are frequent users of the internet, we usually expect that they already know how to approach and appraise online information, but the opposite seems to be true.”
Teens on smart phones.
iStock.

Story at a glance


  • The rise of online medical misinformation has raised alarm bells for professionals and social media platforms alike.

  • In an effort to test teens’ understanding of real vs. fake medical information, researchers carried out a study among 300 individuals.

  • They found 41 percent of participants believed true neutral messages and fake ones were equally trustworthy. 

Amid the growing popularity of social media and rising proliferation of online medical misinformation, new research shows a large proportion of teenagers are unable to tell true online health messages from fake ones. 

“Adolescents, as active online searchers, have easy access to health information,” authors wrote. However, much of the information they encounter online “is of poor quality and even contains potentially harmful health information.”

To better understand teenagers’ ability to spot fake health information, researchers conducted a study on 300 individuals with an average age of 17. Researchers edited a series of messages on the health-promoting effects of different fruits and vegetables. Participants then rated the seven messages’ trustworthiness. 

Each message was either completely fake, true neutral, or true with editorial elements like superlatives, clickbait, incorrect grammar, authority appeal or bold typeface. 


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Less than half (48 percent) of teens trusted the unembellished true health messages over fake ones. More than 40 percent thought fake and true neutral messages were equally trustworthy, while 11 percent thought true neutral messages were less trustworthy than fake ones.

“As adolescents are frequent users of the internet, we usually expect that they already know how to approach and appraise online information, but the opposite seems to be true,” said study co-author Radomír Masaryk, of Comenius University in Slovakia in a statement

Findings also revealed that poor editing of the health messages was not a red flag for low trustworthiness among teenagers assessed. 

“The only version of a health message that was significantly less trusted compared to a true health message was a message with a clickbait headline,” Masaryk said. Researchers noted the findings underscore the need for improved health and media literacy in this age group. 

When it comes to health information, trusting misleading or inaccurate messages can have real-life consequences.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, some platforms have made strides in tackling misinformation about the crisis, but as national issues, such as abortion, move in and out of the spotlight, platforms are put in a position of reacting in real-time to falsehoods. 

In addition, popular apps among teens like TikTok have seen a rise in health influencers, who aim to provide advice or answer medically sensitive questions for users, even when they have no traditional background or training in the subject.