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J Med Internet Res. 2008 Jun 30;10(2):e17. doi: 10.2196/jmir.986.

The impact of inaccurate Internet health information in a secondary school learning environment.

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Department of Psychology, Rice University, 6100 Main Street, MS25, Houston, TX 77005, USA.



Patients in the United States commonly use the Internet to acquire health information. While a significant amount of health-related information is available on the Internet, the accuracy of this information is highly variable.


The objective of the study was to determine how effectively students can assess the accuracy of Internet-based material when gathering information on a controversial medical topic using simple keyword searches.


A group of 34 students from the science magnet high school in Houston, Texas searched for the terms "vaccine safety" and "vaccine danger" using Google and then answered questions regarding the accuracy of the health information on the returned sites. The students were also asked to describe the lessons they learned in the exercise and to answer questions regarding the strength of evidence for seven statements regarding vaccinations. Because of the surprising revelation that the majority of students left the exercise with inaccurate information concerning the safety and efficacy of vaccines, these same students participated in a follow-up study in which a fact-based vaccine video was shown, after which the assessment of student knowledge was repeated.


Of the 34 participants, 20 (59%) thought that the Internet sites were accurate on the whole, even though over half of the links (22 out of 40, 55%) that the students viewed were, in fact, inaccurate on the whole. A high percentage of the students left the first exercise with significant misconceptions about vaccines; 18 of the 34 participants (53%) reported inaccurate statements about vaccines in the lessons they learned. Of the 41 verifiable facts about vaccines that were reported by participants in their lessons-learned statement, 24 of those facts (59%) were incorrect. Following presentation of the film, the majority of students left the exercise with correct information about vaccines, based on their lessons-learned statement. In this case, 29 of the 31 participants (94%) reported accurate information about vaccines. Of the 49 verifiable facts about vaccines that were reported by participants, only 2 (4%) were incorrect. Students had higher correct scores in the "strength of evidence" exercise following exposure to the video as well.


Allowing students to use the Internet to gain information about medical topics should be approached with care since students may take away predominantly incorrect information. It is important to follow up conflicting information with a solid, unambiguous message that communicates those lessons that the instructor deems most important. This final message should be fact based but may need to contain an anecdotal component to counter the strong emotional message that is often delivered by inaccurate Internet sites.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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