Growing Up with “Dr. Google” – A Prescription for Stress or Empowerment? Digital Daughters Weigh In…

images-3Your 14-year-old daughter tells you that she is worried about a dry patch on her elbow, a sore on the tip of her tongue and a bent eyelash that hurts when she blinks.  She has been Googling her ailments, and fears the worst.  You:

  1. Call the doctor immediately.
  2. Tell her that you will use your search engines to diagnose her ailments and get to the bottom of them all.
  3. Tell her not to worry.Let her know that while these small ills are worth looking into, they are probably also worth a giggle, and they will surely go away.
  4. Call 911!

For every lump, bump, rash, pain, pimple and bruise, kids today have constant access to an always on-call “Dr. Google” – an omnipresent option for self-diagnosis.  But, is the ability to search the Internet’s health sites a good thing for our adolescents – offering them helpful information, self-awareness and self-diagnoses – or are we raising a future generation of hypochondriacs?

The fact is, our kids are the first generation to grow up with “Dr. Google” at their fingertips, and we are the first parents faced with negotiating the potentially angst-ridden search results.  I know that every time my own 16-year-old daughter observes a physical change in her body, she immediately starts Googling for answers.  I listen to her findings and her worries with a mixture of concern, fascination and amusement, and I think, would I ever even notice the “two tastebuds on the tip of my tongue that are white and weird?” Mostly, however, I am exceedingly grateful that she is healthy and has no “big ills” to conquer (fingers and toes crossed, saying a prayer…).

imagesShe’s certainly not the only one.  A recent nationwide study (June 2015) conducted by Northwestern University on “Teens, Health and Technology” looked at the extent and frequency of teen use of the Internet for health information and found that 84 percent of American teenagers consult the Internet for information regarding health, fitness and overall physical and mental behavior.  And, the most common reason teens look for health information online is to learn how to take better care of themselves.
According to Derek Flanzraich, CEO and Founder of Greatist.com, a popular health and wellness website for Millennials, “There’s never been more health information for Millennials to find, so it only make sense that it’s never been more difficult for them to properly screen, analyze and act on the right data.” This is supported by survey data that finds 37% of Millennials sometimes self-diagnose with health problems that they don’t have. Perpetuating this “search and stress” cycle, 44% say that viewing health information online causes them to worry about their health.

I asked my Digital Daughter Ambassadors (DDAs) to weigh in…

According to Lauren from Houston:

“This summer, I noticed that I had somehow torn a piece of mole on my leg. It turned a really strange color and looked bad so of course I Googled it and the first thing that pops up is skin cancer. Then I Googled how long I would live and of course that too had a post that said I could die in six weeks. I panicked, cried, and when I told my mom she laughed a little and said it was just a little infection. I totally blew it WAY out of proportion and literally had myself thinking I was going to die soon. It totally stressed me out so I probably won’t be doing that again any time soon!”

Maia, from New York, had this to say:

“I recently got my ears pierced, and one ear was red and hurting so I used Google to see if I had an ear infection or something. I know it’s not totally reliable but I mainly used Yahoo answers in that particular situation and most people said to clean it or whatever, but so many people said what they thought so it was really helpful to be able to compare their answers. I also sometimes use more scientific, official websites but it really depends. I realize that sometimes it’s probably more information than I need.”

The good news for caregivers is that while the Internet is the most popular media source for health information, teenagers still say they get the majority of such advice from their parents.  According to the “Teens, Health and Technology” study, 55% of American teenagers say they get “a lot” of health info from parents, followed by health classes at school (32%) and medical providers (29%). Overall, the Internet ranks fourth (25%) as a source of “a lot” of health information.

Alexandra supports these findings:

“When I’m hurt or something is physically bothering me I normally turn to my parents for help. They can usually help me diagnose what is wrong and decide what kind of treatment I need. However, if it is a more serious illness or injury, or if my parents don’t know how to help, then both me and my parents turn to Google for help.”

Many of my DDAs are dedicated athletes, and need to be aware of their physical fitness and health.  Kaylie, a high school softball player said:

“To be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve ever used Google to self diagnose.  When you play softball, bruises, bumps and cuts appear all over and you kind of just accept them even though you have no memory of them arriving! (Probably not the best tactic, I know!) If anything super major comes up, I ask my dad, and he’ll just tell me to put ice or something on it. As he puts it, ‘90% of the time I’m right, even though 50% of that time I have no idea what I’m talking about.’” 

And Claire who runs track said:

“If something hurts, the first thing I do is Google my symptoms. I’m a very curious person, and I also get worried that an injury will prevent me from training. I feel empowered by using Google as it has helped me diagnose some of my injuries in the past such as plantar fasciitis. I later had a doctor confirm that plantar fasciitis was the source of my foot pain, but until I could see a doctor, Google was very helpful.”

And what about us parents?  Most of us are just as wired to “Dr. Google,” and may even feel a parental obligation to use search engines to diagnose on behalf of our family members’ health.

According to my friend Peggy, mother of three, ages 10, 12 and 16:

“I am all about self diagnosis! For me and my kids! And my dog for that matter. I think it helps put things in perspective. I don’t tend to be a worrier though. I just like knowing what the possible outcomes are.”

Jenny, who has younger kids, told me:

“I haven’t observed my kids trying to self diagnose yet.  I think you have to be a little older to feel like you can treat your own illnesses.  Right now they just come to me with their aches and pains.  But I definitely Google my family’s symptoms all the time; sometimes accurately and sometimes not!” 

And, my friend Joanna who has a 13-year-old offered this advice:

“If your kid is really freaking out, it would be worth a co-pay to take them to an actual doctor who might be able to allay their fears – they might have more credibility with the kid than the parent has.”

Given recent events, this topic is especially relevant, and even visceral.  During high school soccer tryouts, my 14-year-old son broke his arm and needed surgery.  While I frequently turn to search engines for small ills (e.g. my daughter’s recent allergic reaction to her nickel-based watch), Googling the surgical procedure for a broken radius bone gave me pause.  Did I really need to see the details spelled out?  Shouldn’t I just trust the advice of our well-respected pediatric orthopedic surgeon?  And, would too much information about a medical injury I have no expertise in put me over the edge?  Ultimately, once the surgery was over and successful, I did Google around to learn more about my son’s now bionic arm (heretofore known as the “Bionic Boy.”)  But, I am glad I left the diagnosing to the pros.

So, back to the original question at hand, is the ability to search the Internet’s health sites a good thing for our adolescents?

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and an expert on a range of subjects related to parenting and teens said, “Yes, we may be raising a generation of ‘cyber-chondriacs,’ but on the other hand, I love the access to health and sexual questions. Kids can privately look up issues without being embarrassed. I have always been a fan of more information rather than less.”

As for what parents can do to minimize worry caused by our kids’ self-diagnosis, “Remind your kids that they don’t always have to select the worst possible diagnosis from WebMD and other health sites. Also, it’s very important that they not get into the habit of scanning their bodies for aches and pains. The body doesn’t always function perfectly but this does not mean that they are ill!”

And, if you are still mulling over the best answer to the upfront multiple choice question….Although my good friend Marci assured me that a bent eyelash does really hurt (she’s suffered from this ailment it in the past), the best answer to the question is C.

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