Are You Googling Yourself Sick?

That moment when weird symptoms leap out from your computer screen . . . into your head . . . onto your body?!

Peter Cade/The Image Bank/Getty Images

How to find solid—not sketchy—health info online.

You’re watching YouTube videos when you feel a little pain. “Huh, that’s weird,” you think. So you Google it: Is it appendicitis? Internal bleeding? A deadly tropical flu? And suddenly, that little pain doesn’t feel so little anymore. Sound familiar?

Whether you’re wondering about an ache, an odor, or the best way to work out, the Internet is likely the first place you go for advice. (According to a recent study, 84 percent of teens search for health info online.) But—spoiler alert—not every site is totally reliable! So use these simple rules to help you keep your head on straight.

 Think before you click

“I usually go to the search results that appear first. They tend to be the most useful/resourceful websites.” —Ben, 15

Choices surveyed teens (including Ben!) about how they find health help online, and many said they usually click the top search result. The problem? Search engines rank results according to an insanely complex set of constantly changing rules, and accuracy often doesn’t factor into the formula. Here’s what does:

1. How many other web sites link to that site

2. The number of times your search’s keywords show up on the site

3. Your search engine history (and the types of sites you typically click on)

Click this instead! MedlinePlus is a search engine for vetted health info! All results have been reviewed to ensure they’re accurate, current, and objective.

Sniff out the source

“I look for websites with good design—the better the design of the website, the more I trust it.” —Arden, 15

Sometimes you’re not necessarily searching for your symptoms—you click on a link about fitness advice or somehow land on an article that promises to solve your sleep probs. It looks good, but can you trust it? Here’s how to separate the solid from the sketchy.

Maybe Solid:

The URL: ends in .gov, .org, or .edu. But beware: Some .orgs are biased, and .edu servers don’t host just research and educational departments—they host students’ sites too.

The Source: is a pro! It’s either written by or reviewed by a doctor or other medical professional.

The Tone: is fair and factual—and those facts are backed up by statistics and/or clear links to research studies.

The Date: listed for the article’s creation is within the past three years.

Maybe Sketchy:

The URL: ends in .com, which means it’s a commercial or for-profit site. (Not all .coms are bad, but they should always be viewed with greater scrutiny.)

The Source: isn’t labeled, or there’s no “About” page that defines who runs the site and what their motives are.

The Tone: is noticeably angry or one-sided. (In that case, ask yourself: Am I getting the whole story here?)

The Date: the content was last updated is absent or is more than three years old.

BewareIt happened to me!”

“I’ll look at a blog about a persons experience with problems I’m having.” —Maddie, 15

Tapping into a community of teens with diabetes, for example, is a good source of support if you’ve been diagnosed. But it’s dangerous to turn to other teens or non-experts for answers, and here’s why: Research shows that people are much more likely to share bad experiences rather than good ones! Think of it this way ...

The Problem with Dr. Google

We asked a family physician why nothing beats a doctor’s visit:

“When you make a diagnosis, you don’t just look at symptoms. You look at context—so a 102º fever in flu season is different from a 102º fever in July. You also consider the patient’s medical history and exam, and you bank on your experience, which includes some intuition.” — Dr. Tara Doyle Bizily, Minneapolis

—With Reporting By Nicole Caccavo Kear

Images: Rouzes/E+/Getty Images

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