A flood of (mis)information: parenting in the digital age

photo by Heath Brandon

These days, when we have a question or doubt about our health or our child (or about anything really), our first thought is not likely to get out a book, or make a phone call. It is to search the web.  The internet brings answers to our questions within a few seconds.  This is an amazing thing- patients bring questions to clinic about things they have read, the patient/physician relationship becomes less paternalistic, e-patient communities are formed.  Patients and health care providers are more well-informed and empowered.

But what happens when the information we find is not correct? What if a search leads us to mis-information masquerading as fact? I wrote previously about how parents obtain health information, and a very interesting article in Slate this week got me thinking again. The article asks, in essence, if it is time for some “quality control” on the web. When we type a query into Google, for example, should answers from “reputable” sources be more prominent? If a source is questionable, should it be flagged as such?

As a pediatrician, I worry a lot about mis-information on the web and the ways that it impacts parent beliefs and actions. In areas such as autism and immunizations, I believe it has cost us dearly. But, I’m not sure we’re ready for this type of policing. As is often the case, especially in medicine, the technology outpaces the ethics. Who would decide which source is “better”? How would we avoid a slippery slope into censorship?

Until these questions are answered, we must take personal (and professional) responsibility for our own searches. We must be more discerning partners in the search. We must be critical of the information we are fed. And, as Dr. Kevin Pho wrote on this topic, “It’s a tricky situation, one that only got to this point because of the ineptness of the scientific establishment to better utilize the online medium as a way to strengthen scientifically-sound claims.” As health care providers, we should be talking about this more.

The mis-information on the web can be particularly distressing for parents.  Even as a pediatrician, I frequently have questions about my son.  Am I doing the right thing?  As parents, we want to be sure we are doing the best we can with the best information. So, here are a few questions to ask yourself when reading medical or parenting advice on-line:

  • Consider the source. Who is the author? What qualifications do they have that convince me they are credible? What evidence do they use to back up their opinion? Do they have financial incentives? Are they selling a product related to their advice?
  • Compare sites. If a number of reputable sites agree on an issue, it is much more likely to be accurate than one outlier.
  • Consider your own bias. It may be very tempting as a parent to want to believe something you read because it provides an answer, a solution, a medication. Something to make a problem go away. Which, of course, is what we would all hope for. But, sometimes, it is not to be. Ask yourself if you believe something because you want to, or because it is true.
  • Go old school. Once you’ve read a little on the web, consider visiting the library or browsing a bookstore to find other sources in order to further your knowledge.
  • Talk to your health care provider or other authorities on the topics you are searching. Bring articles to clinic visits. Ask your provider for sites or articles that they consider reliable. And, tell them about sites you like. You may teach them something new that will help another patient or family.

This week I’ve updated my blogroll, favorite sites, and good reads sections to let you know some of the places I find useful, credible, accessible information.  Check out these resources- some are more traditional formats, and some are creative, web 2.0 folks that I really like.

Thoughts? Do you think “mis-information” should be labeled as such? How would that work? Are there other sites that you have found useful for health or parenting information?

2 thoughts on “A flood of (mis)information: parenting in the digital age

  1. Pingback: Vaxfax: Resources for Information about Immunizations | My Two Hats


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