7 tips for becoming a savvy digital parent

As a pediatrician, I encourage families to search online for health advice. Yet how you search and where you click matters. Tips for you and your time with “Dr. Google” or “Surgeon Bing.”

The Pew Internet Project’s research finds that over 70% of Internet users in the United States say they have looked online for health information in the last year. Furthermore, most health information seekers (ie freaked out parents searching in the middle of the night) don’t start their health search on their pediatrician’s website. More than ¾ of people in the United States start their health search by typing something into a search engine like Google or Bing. Where you click and what you do next is key.

As a mom, pediatrician, blogger and general online enthusiast, here are a few insights to assist you when looking online for health information for your child or family. We parents are active information seekers on our phones and computer — I maintain that this is a GREAT thing! For practicing physicians, there is a tricky balance in believing that the Internet can help save lives. Have you been in to see Doctor Google? A few ideas to improve trust for us all.

7 tips for becoming a savvy digital parent

Breadcrumb trail. When you’re reading about information that may change what you do for your child, do your best to keep a breadcrumb trail of where you’ve been. When we’re online we often click around and then have no idea where we’ve been or who instructed us. Write down links or sources you’ve used to make decisions about your child’s health. Write down names of authors you come to trust. Then when you go in to see your pediatrician, you can cite your research and improve the conversation and understanding if the info is credible and relevant to current thinking/research. If your physician or nurse is unfamiliar with the recommendations you’re taking, you can look them up together in the exam room and discuss more. You’ll be thrilled to have this breadcrumb trail.

Social network. When you join a social network like Facebook or Twitter, follow physicians you know, psychologists, and leading health reporters for up to date information online. They’ll lead you to others you can come to trust by what they share and with who they “talk” online.

It’s always okay to ask for advice. It’s always wise to ask your pediatrician or specialist for a great place to go online to read more about your child’s health condition. Don’t hesitate in asking for help when you want more information. If they don’t have a good link, ask them to search with you quickly before the end of the visit to vet sources and links offered up when you search.

Heart Racing? Freaking out? — Close the window/link. If you find yourself reading an article online and your  heart begins to race, write down the link. Take your time. Not everything we read online is relevant and true in our life, no matter how relevant it may seem. Although there is great information online, there is also plenty of hyperbole, of course, since the commerce of the internet is still archaically based on the number of views people get on links. Many articles are written simply to get your attention, not to educate you. If something you read terrifies you, be sure to get professional back-up with the opinion. Don’t ever let “Dr Google” be the final word. In actuality, most Americans don’t. Although 1/3 of us (or more) go online to self-diagnose, most go in to confer with our doctor or nurse after we think we have a new diagnosis.

Don’t confuse experience for expertise. Experts are online but they can sometimes be difficult to find. In my opinion, the best medical advice is backed by reputable hospitals, academic societies, or physician groups. Don’t confuse the story one person or one family may tell online with the incredible data of thousands that scientific research represents. Find online content written by physicians that represents consensus views. If the information goes against recommendations, then ask your pediatrician to explain their take. Also: Expect online experts to provide links to the data they use to back claims and the research they use to maintain their advice and rationale. Expect the “why” to rules or advice they provide. If not, consider stepping away from the advice.

Don’t expect personal health care online. The online environment is one ready and prepared to distribute information for the masses. Don’t expect that you can receive personalized physician health advice online without a HIPAA compliant, private communication channel (like an electronic medical record patient portal). Until we create great, trusted, and safe channels to converse outside the exam room, the best way to determine final care decisions for your child and your family will likely be in person. But that being said, what you learn online can help shape and confirm your decisions.

Perfection isn’t the goal. Remember that when it comes to parenting advice, perfection is always an illusion. Our job as parents is to use car seats properly, leverage preventative medicine — like vaccines, go outside every day, fill ½ of our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, and limit media, especially in the bedroom so that both our children and we ourselves can get a restful, full night of sleep. That’s health!

Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician who blogs at Seattle Mama Doc. She is the author of Mama Doc Medicine: Finding Calm and Confidence in Parenting, Child Health, and Work-Life Balance.

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