A parent’s guide to health information on the Internet
The Internet can be a rich source of information on child and youth health. But it isn’t always clear whether the information is reliable. Trustworthy health information should be unbiased and based on scientific evidence.
Some websites can be a source of confusion and conflicting information about health questions. There are many health-related discussion forums or boards where people can share their personal experiences, opinions or stories. When it comes to the health of your child or teen, it’s best not to follow the advice of these sources without first talking about it with your doctor.
The following guide can help you rule out websites as sources of misinformation, but it won’t be enough to help you make important health decisions for your family. *Always discuss your health decisions with your family’s health care provider.*
What is a conflict of interest?
Many websites sell products or promote a specific opinion. If the person or organization responsible for the website makes money from the site’s advice, then they are in a conflict of interest. A website can also have a conflict of interest when the goal of the site doesn’t involve making money.
Sometimes a conflict of interest is obvious, but other times it is harder to tell.
When looking for a credible health website, think about the following:
- Does the website say who is responsible for the information and how to contact them? Look for an “About us” or “Contact us” link to find out more about the organization. It’s best not to use information from a site if you can’t tell who is responsible for it.
- Has the site been developed by a reputable leader such as a government organization, professional association, or respected non-profit organization? Some special interest groups publish information that isn’t based on evidence, or that focuses on the organization’s opinion of an issue.
- Is the website selling a product or service? Websites that sell or promote a product or service are biased. Often, there is no scientific evidence to back up the claims they make. Even if the site isn’t selling a product, it might be sponsored by companies that can benefit from the advice on the site. If the sponsor provides an “unrestricted grant,” it usually means the sponsor is not involved in content development.
- Is the information presented in a professional way using clear and easy-to-understand language? Or is it based on the experiences of a few individuals who may not have expertise in that specific area?
- Are there ads on the site? While there are good sites that sell ads to cover their costs and are not in a conflict of interest, it’s still a good idea to know the source of the information.
Is the information on the website credible?
Credible information is based on up-to-date evidence that comes from proper research. Health information can be biased because of conflicts of interest, but also because of errors in how the research was done. Unless you have special training in research methods, it can be hard to tell if health information is based on proper research.
Here are some questions to help you judge the information from a scientific point of view:
- Is the information recent? Does the website show when it was posted, reviewed or last updated? The dates are often found at the bottom of the page.
- Is the website’s advice based on opinion or is there evidence to support it? Evidence-based recommendations are better than the opinion of experts. In some cases, the opinion of recognized experts may be your best option, but only when good evidence isn’t available. Even an expert opinion is still just a point of view.
- Is the information on the website peer reviewed? That means that it has been reviewed by other experts in the field. The site should specify the type of peer review (for example, a board or committee of experts that is not in a conflict of interest). Websites that are not peer reviewed may have unproven claims that seem too good to be true. Unfortunately, they often are.
- Does the site explain or provide references to the study on which the advice is based? The website should be specific about the source of any information by providing a list of references, studies or articles.
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Community Paediatrics Committee
Last updated: May 2012