Beyond its role as an indispensable communications hub, internet access connects users to reams of vital information, necessary for life management, health and civic engagement. The section below explores the intersection of teen and adult data over time on health information searches, news-seeking behaviors and online purchasing.
Teens, adults and online health information
About a third (31%) of online teens ages 12 to 17 use the internet to look for health, dieting or physical fitness information, a finding that has remained relatively stable since the question was first asked in December 2000, when 26% of online teens gathered health information online. Older teens are more likely than younger teens to look online for health information (38% of teens ages 14-17 vs. 13% of teens ages 12-13). Back in 2000, when we first asked teens about their online health information seeking practices, teens showed similar variations - older teens, particularly older teen girls were more likely to look for health information online.
Teens also use the internet to look for information on health topics that are hard to talk about, like drug use, sexual health or depression. A bit more than one in six (17%) internet-using teens look online for information about sensitive health topics, statistically equivalent to the 22% who reported such searches in 2004.
Girls are more likely than boys to look online for sensitive health information (23% vs. 11%). Younger boys are the least likely group to look for information on a health topic that is hard to talk about—just 4% of online boys ages 12-13 have done so, compared with 13% of older boys ages 14-17. Teens from the lowest- income families – those earning less than $30,000 annually – are the most likely to seek health information online. Just about a quarter (23%) of online low-income teens look for health information compared with 11% of teens from households earning more than $75,000 a year.
These patterns are similar to the differences visible between groups when we first asked about looking for sensitive health information in 2004. Back then, as now, girls, older teens and especially older girls were the most likely to look for sensitive health information online, as were lower income teens. In 2009, there are no racial or ethnic or education level differences in those who look for sensitive health information online compared with those who did not. However, in 2004, non-white teens and teens with less well-educated parents were more likely to look online for answers to health questions that were hard to ask of others.
A December 2008 Pew Internet survey of adults 18 and older indicates that overall, six in ten adults are online health information seekers. In that survey, adults were asked about a series of health topics, and 61% said they had looked online for at least one of those items. This is a notable increase over the 45% of all American adults who were looking online for health information in 2002. Specifically, in 2008, 38% of adults indicated that they look online for information about exercise or fitness, and 21% said they look online for information about depression, anxiety, stress or mental health issues. Overall, one quarter of adults (24%) report looking online for information about how to lose weight or how to control their weight. This is particularly common among adults in the 25-39 age range; four in ten adults in this population (40%) look online for information about weight control.
The key age divide among adult online health information seekers is 50 years of age. Seven in ten adults under age 50 are online health information seekers—72% of those under age 30 and 71% of those age 30-49. In comparison, just 46% of adults age 50 or older look for health information online. Overall, online women are more avid health information seekers than online men, and are significantly more likely than men to look for information about exercise and fitness (56% v. 48%), information about how to lose weight (42% v. 24%), and information about depression, anxiety and other mental health issues (35% v. 22%).