Older adults are online more than ever before, many of them searching for health information. But how do older adults search for and use online health information?
The reliability and usefulness of information available online varies widely, so it is important to assess how older adult Internet users decide which information is credible. A recent study describes the search patterns of a group of older adults in Canada, showing the need to improve critical online reading skills.
The authors contextualize their findings by providing a helpful literature review about older adults’ Internet searching in the United States and Canada. Previous research has shown that older adults have lower anxiety about online health information after receiving training, which also allows them to take a more active role in their health care. However, there is a deficit in research about the validity of online health information, and the processes used by older adults to evaluate this information.
Researchers recruited 83 older adults in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and participants were provided with access to a computer equipped to record their online actions. They were asked to perform two web searches on a particular health topicand then asked to fill out a survey that included information about their own experiences with the Internet. The survey included a six-item scale to assess critical consumer skills and a seven-item assessment of website quality.
Almost all participants had previous Internet experience, and most had searched for online health information in the past. Overall, participants were uncertain about how to identify credible health information online; less than one-third of participants checked their chosen websites for sources, for example, and many reported false beliefs about the quality of information online. For example, one participant expressed the belief that all information online has been checked for truth by an authoritative expert.
Participants also struggled to distinguish between commercial websites and educational or public sites. Participants also tended to trust online information that confirmed their prior beliefs—even when such information was untrue and did not offer reliable sources. These findings suggest that it would be productive to provide guidance and further critical skills to computer users, and to increase awareness about the prevalence of low-quality health information online.