Teenage patients are answering medical questions on Yahoo! Answers

by Lorelei Armstrong

Doctors debate whether patients Googling symptoms is a good thing or a bad thing. I bet you haven’t thought about something that might be worse:  your teenage patients are answering one another’s medical questions on Yahoo! Answers.

They’re not always clear on anatomy and terminology:  “How can I tell if I’m circumcised?” and “What’s the best way to shave my vagina?” and “Where is the female prostate located?”

They are sexually active and not well informed: “If my boyfriend and I put the condom on after we start, can I still get an STD?” and “I had the HPV shot, am I protected from other STDs and AIDS?” and “I’m 12, should I take Viagra for my penis?”

They are worried that they are too tall, too short, too heavy, too thin, that their parts are the wrong shape or size. They believe every fad diet in the world. “Is anorexia a good diet?” and “Is it healthy to drink 16.9 fluid ounces of water per day?”

The girls think their periods should run like a Swiss watch and be red blood. Anything else is abnormal. “I’m a virgin and my period is two days late?!?!?!” and “Brown discharge why?!” and the boys have no idea what a normal size for a penis might be or much else. “Left nut too low!”

I feel sorry for any doctor that faces the surprisingly common “Back of my head hurts!” and the perpetual “How tall will I be?”

Every symptom means cancer or a tapeworm. They think the annual odds of catching tapeworm approach 80%.

There are some very serious hypochondriacs.

Many cannot spell. “Problem with my virgina?”

They worry about their parents who have cancer, or alcoholism, or kidney failure, and no health insurance. They worry about their grandparents who just had strokes or fell down the stairs. “Help my Gran!”

Want to make a billion dollars? Invent something that clears drugs from the urine, blood, and hair in eight hours. “Toked saturday, pee test thurs, chances?” and “OMG, I have to pass!”

Some will take anything to get high. “I just smoked something. What was it?” and “How many Oxycodone 325s to get high?” and “Just snorted two Vics and nothing, why?” and “How come 11 650mg paracetamols make you feel high?”

I know the number for poison control now. Some things you don’t just observe.

They want to know if there’s any risk from smoking a joint through a toilet paper tube jammed full of dryer sheets to hide the smell. “Is this OK?”

A few are not interested in health:  “How can I get sick by tomorrow?” and “What’s the easiest way to break a bone?” and many variations on:  “Where can I buy a euthanasia kit?”

They get groped by the neighbor while babysitting. Their fathers tell them they have a rare disease that won’t let them have children with people of another race. They really do get STDs and cancer. They cut themselves. Their parents refuse to take them to the dentist and refuse to take them to the doctor and tell them not to tell the doctor things or they’ll get in trouble.

Some of them worry about the voices in their heads and the secret cameras their parents put in their rooms to spy on them.

These are your patients. Don’t assume they understand what you tell them. Tell them things that seem obvious to you. Write things down. Spell things out. Tell them where to find more information. When they ask you a question, do not shrug.

Ask them if there’s anything anyone told them not to tell you.

Ask them if they’re scared.

Lorelei Armstrong is a novelist and can be reached at her self-titled website, Lorelei Armstrong.

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  • doc99

    What’s news about that? Kids have always talked about these issues with their peers. The only thing that’s changed is now the venue. It used to be the schoolyard – now it’s yahoo answers, facebook, twitter etc. Thanks for posting though, because it shows yet another area in which medical professionals are behind the curve. Come to think of it, we weren’t too good in combatting schoolyard misinformation either.

    • http://abnormalfacies.wordpress.com/ Jim

      I have to disagree – the accessibility of the venue makes all the difference. Many of these questions are those which wouldn’t be so easily encountered during recess.

      In this setting, the damage that a little misinformation can do is amplified greatly, in my humble opinion.

  • http://fertilityfile.com IVF-MD

    If one gets information and misinformation from a variety of sources, critical thinking will pave the way towards better decisions. Sometimes Western medical information is more useful. Sometimes, traditional “Eastern” medical information is more useful. Sometimes, something from a scientific peer-reviewed journal is more useful. Sometimes, wisdom from grandma is more useful.

    The problem is NOT that there is misinformation out there. A problem exists only if the teenage readers are irrational and blindly embrace every word they read. If that’s the case, does that expose the flaws in a so-called educational system that teaches rote memorization and blind acceptance and obedience rather than teaching critical thinking and logic? I agree with doc99. Misinformation has been around since man learned to communicate. The media and format of communication have changed, but the concept is still universal. You would be wise to review most new kernels of information presented to you and skeptically analyze them with critical thinking.

    • john

      This is too simplistic of a response. We are talking about easily impressionable people who usually are interested in information that is either too embarassing to discuss with peers or they feel uncomfortable doing so. Finally, just because misinformation was common during recess does not mean the dynamics have not changed. Sometimes the medium can affect the outcome.

      What about the socially awkward kid who does not talk to people in recess but goes online to ask personal questions? what then?

      • http://www.twitter.com/alicearobertson Alice

        Just proves that education is only part of the issue. Some things are sacred…..and taking the mystery out of them has turned it recreational. It’s not just the inquisitiveness or naivety of teens that is the whole problem……it’s not easily wrapped up in a nutshell. Protection of our children is about more than just not getting pregnant or pedophiles. There is an emotional aspect that needs nurtured and prepared beforehand.

        Our kids see immorality and unethical behavior from teachers, politicians……and considering most kids get most of their mindset from the culture of TV they may even think their doctors act like the doctors on Grey’s Anatomy (Marcus Welby seems like a Victorian myth to our culture…..far less MTV’s hit Skins…..we have no cable here). People we used to respect. Add the internet and the teenage mind is a play field. Most experts don’t even think anyone under 15 years old should even have a Facebook account (the President’s wife spoke this publicly this week).

        I don’t know…..I have four kids over eighteen and I still tend to think there is something beautiful in innocence.

  • Tom

    I too have been appalled at the incredible ignorance displayed on Yahoo Answers Health by children whose parents likely claim they have been ruined by early exposure to health classes and sex ed classes. I see no sign that they have had any training in even basic bathing and toothcare techniques. Either the IQs of youth have lowered substantially since my school days when we knew the answers to most of these questions; or many of these questions are just silly children askng silly questions. I believe the latter in many cases. However, many of the sexual questions are frightening, especially when one realizes that the 13 and 14 yo girls who are worried about or just learned they are pregnant, became that way with the sperm of an adult male. These numbers are not tracked, but if Americans knew the vast number of adult males impregnanting minor girls, they might actually find something that they can actually stand up for family values over and make a difference. Why a parent would ever allow a 13 or 14 yo to date a high school senior or a 17 yo to date a 23 yo is beyond me.

  • Finn

    “If one gets information and misinformation from a variety of sources, critical thinking will pave the way towards better decisions. ” Yes, getting pregnant or AIDS because of misinformation will definitely make them wiser in the long run. The problem is that kids who are asking questions on Yahoo Answers believe they can rely on the answers they get. They’re not old enough, experienced enough, or informed enough to know that they can’t.

    • http://fertilityfile.com IVF-MD

      How about teaching critical thinking in school? Do you think it’s an accident if a teenager blindly believes what she reads on the internet or do you think it might possibly be related to the guidance received from her parents and teachers? What do you think?

      • http://Www.twitter.com/alicearobertson Alice

        A good class on fallacy and logic works too. A type of truth seeking scavenger hunt where you do not have to experience the ghetto, drugs, or sex to understand the harsh realities. I think the schools had a family living class where the students wore pregnancy suits, made budgets, were given a doll that cried, etc. Maybe they should add an Internet Truth or Consequences type of class?

        Hey…when I was in school we believed you could catch certain sexually transmitted items off a toilet…and some girls swore they got pregnant just by entering a hot tub:)

  • Alice

    My teenage daughter has cancer. One night before her first operation my spirit was broken when I read her Facebook status. It said, “Don’t look your disease up online…………..” She was searching for answers and found some cruel realities, but sick people often post worse case scenarios. After her last operation she asked a question at yahoo about a tattoo for her type of cancer…a poster let her have it…telling her that her cancer is nothing compared to her diabetes….blah, blah, blah……….tattoos are from the devil, etc. Someone reported this sister of Satan :) and they deleted her post..

    You need thick skin online because in this age of narcissism and anonymous posters cruelty is sorta expected when there are no social consequences for bad behavior of cyber idiots.

  • http://bizsavvytherapist.com Susan Giurleo

    How about doctors get on social media and clear things up??
    The above responses that parents, teachers and schools need to teach critical thinking are ridiculous until health care professionals get in the space where people talk to one another and tell give honest, accurate answers. How else will people get educated? Don;t you want to help kids who are confused and often turning to anonymous people to help them make life and death decisions?
    Lorelei, thank so much for this article.

    • http://fertilityfile.com IVF-MD

      Teaching critical thinking to kids is ridiculous?

      What’s better? A: Kids learn the critical life skill of thinking for themselves, which includes gathering information from a variety of sources. B: Kids blindly trusting a stranger who “gets in the space where people talk” but only trusting those who happen to label themselves as “a healthcare professional”

      See the difference? A is the empowering way whereas B merely substitutes one blind faith for another. I agree that it’s worse for a teenager to blindly trust another clueless teenager rather than to blindly trust an adult authority figure, but neither is a good as communicating with your child and teaching him how to think for themselves.

      It’s the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish.

  • Finn

    I’m absolutely in favor of teaching critical thinking skills to kids and I think it will serve them well in the long run, but I don’t believe it will solve the problem under discussion. First, they can’t learn fast enough to protect themselves from incorrect answers. Second, they don’t possess enough basic understanding of biology, health, and medicine to critically assess answers on their own. Third, if they have a frightening symptom, whatever critical thinking skills they possess are going to be diminshed. And finally, they are teenagers, so their cognitive development is insufficient for the task of truly critically assessing the sources and consequences of the answers they might get on social media sites, or for even recognizing that they should not be looking for answers to health questions on social media sites.

    • http://abnormalfacies.wordpress.com/ Jim

      I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that MANY adults fulfill the above criteria, save cognitive development.. and are also on Yahoo! Answers answering medical questions without any qualifications.

      • http://Www.twitter.com/alicearobertson Alice

        So true…..I have six children…and people keep asking me if I know what causes them?

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