Originally published on Emmi Solutions
Is technology a democratizing force for health education? Theoretically, yes. Access to information is no longer limited to health care professionals and the highly educated; anyone with a smart phone or a laptop and an internet connection can quickly find reputable educational content. And technology can also help overcome low health literacy, since people can access information at all levels of complexity in text or audio or video or visual form, finding the perfect explanation to meet them where they are and bring them to the next level of understanding.
At least, we’d like to think that’s the case.
It turns out that the ability to effectively use technology and evaluate the quality of information online is not universal. Just as people vary in their ability to understand and follow health information, they also vary in their comfort with and ability to use digital technology to find that health information. To believe that the presence of health information online or in an app will help someone carries an implicit assumption that people are able to access it. But sometimes, “technology literacy” stands between people and appropriate, credible health information.
The control F phenomenon:
The first issue with technology literacy is knowing how to use digital tools well. Unfortunately, this skill is lacking for many people. Here’s an example: According to Dan Russell’s research at Google1, only about 10% of computer users know they can use ctrl-F to search for content within a web page. This means 90% of users aren’t aware of the single most efficient way to find relevant content on lengthy or complicated pages—which brings up another issue, that poorly done design may require users to get creative in order to successfully use a digital resource. Someone who’s not technology literate is more likely to struggle with non-intuitive design. Combine a lack of tech knowledge with difficulty parsing health information, and you’ve got a person who’s no better educated than before.
A second issue is that people are poor judges of what is credible, high-quality information online. This problem extends beyond the political “fake news” phenomenon into health information. Sometimes the disreputable information comes in a glossy package: For example, junk wellness and nutrition science peddled by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Vani Hari’s Food Babe convince many readers—people who consider themselves savvy consumers—to buy products or try behaviors in the name of health that may in fact undermine it. (For expert critiques of Goop, see commentary by Dr. Jen Gunter, M.D.2; of Food Babe, Dr. Steven Novella, M.D.3) Then there are the many sites masquerading as news sources offering their takes on health science. Now add in the Facebook effect; for every badly researched health article, there may be hundreds or thousands of people sharing it to their network. For readers who don’t have the experience and training to evaluate source credibility, it’s very easy to be taken in by false information.
Who are the technology illiterate?
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