May 12th, 2011

How the latest Pew report points to link between health literacy and media literacy

Your physical health and media literacy are linked.






Today the Pew Internet and American Life Project, in collaboration with the California Healthcare Foundation, released “The Social Life of Health Information, 2011″ which reports findings of a telephone survey conducted last fall of 3,001 adults. While there is a lot about the report that I found fascinating, here are a few highlights:

  • 80% of all Internet users have looked online for information about at least one of fifteen health topics, ranging from food and drug recalls to health insurance to end-of-life decisions.
  • 1 in 3 adults (30%) report that they or someone they know were helped by information they found online. Only 3% reported being harmed.
  • The top demographic group searching for health information online consists of women, people living in urban or suburban areas, non-Hispanic whites, young adults and those with more education as well as a higher income.
  • 48% of users going online for health information reported that their last search was on behalf of another person.
  • There are two things in particular that stand out to me about this study; first, that so many people are looking for health information for someone other than themselves, and second, that the vast majority of people using the Internet for health information are within a demographic which is not typically noted for health problems like extreme obesity, diabetes, heart conditions–in short, a group that statistically tends to be of average health. This same group of educated, urban, middle-class whites also generally does not have an issue with Internet access.


    In our media-saturated world, health literacy and media literacy are inextricably linked. There is a wealth of information about health available online, but what good is that for people who don’t know how to find it or who aren’t comfortable with digital media? Perhaps more importantly, given the fact that health information is only as trustworthy as its source, what about people who haven’t learned how to think critically about what they find online? If you follow health guidance without considering where it came from, on what it is based or what might be left out, of course you will find yourself among the 3% reporting harm from online health information. On top of that, consider that nearly half of the people searching for health information aren’t doing it for themselves, and presumably they’re sharing that information with the person they’re trying to help, which allows for the information to be even further distorted or confusing for someone who would actually use it.

    At The LAMP, we talk a lot about how what our students can be used outside the classroom, every day, to help them make smarter decisions, often referring to cyberwellness when we speak specifically of digital media. We frequently invoke personal health as something that can be improved when you have the media literacy skills needed to critically process information not just from the Internet, but also from television, advertising and packaging of the food you eat. If your relationship with media is unhealthy, you’re at a major disadvantage when it comes to being healthy yourself.

    –Emily Long

    Follow me on Twitter: @emlong

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