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Quality Of Internet-Based Mental Health Content And Its Evaluation

The sheer enormity, variety, and ready access to media and information online present both immense opportunities and challenges. Internet-based resources provide the opportunity for learning, social connection, and individual enrichment and, yet, this availability also potentially clouds the origin of such information and subsequent quality, thrusting the responsibility on the individual to find relevant information and accurately evaluate its meaning and credibility. Without the requisite media/digital literacy skills, defined as the ability to critically analyze, deconstruct, and evaluate media messages within the economic, social, and political contexts in which the media is produced, significant social, personal, educational, relational, health, and financial consequences may ensue.

In today’s culture, the Internet is generally seen as an acceptably convenient starting point for research on a wide host of physical and mental health problems, and a means to an end, with individuals giving greater credibility to information obtained online than to that obtained from other traditional “help” sources. Researchers have noted the potential for health-related websites to both empower and powerfully influence the attitudes and behaviors of consumers. For consumers of all ages, accessible, relevant, and accurate health information can help guide decision making, such as identifying alternative options or possible consequences. The provision of health-related information and access to reliable online information about prevalence, treatment, and symptoms has been linked to reduced anxiety, increased self-efficacy, and decreases in utilization of ambulatory care among adult users. Little is known about the results for adolescent users.

Since the late-1990s, researchers have noted the explosion of behavioral healthcare resources on the Internet, a potentially overwhelming situation for both consumers and professionals. As of 2000, over 100,000 health information websites exist to provide basic information on various problems and disorders. With such a wide range of content quality available through the Internet and the sheer impossibility of regularly policing material posted by the public and non-accredited bodies, concerns abound about the quality and accuracy of mental health information, in addition to uncertain preservation of personal privacy. Although major attempts have been made to provide relevant and accurate online health information by, for example, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the National Institute of Mental Health, there exist wide variations in the quality of health content on the Internet, as consumers must page through an enormity of misinformation about diagnoses and treatments/interventions. Researchers and practitioners alike have articulated fears that misleading information and potentially harmful consequences may ensue in the absence of regulatory measures.

In 2000, American Medical Association (AMA) approved guiding principles governing its corporate content online, including online sponsorship and advertising on AMA’s website, privacy and confidentiality issues, and secure e-commerce options. While many other organizations started to utilize rating systems on their websites to assess the quality of online content, those systems failed to provide quality assessment criteria, and therefore could not serve as the reliable and valid means to assess content quality.

Given this, objective assessment of the online content quality predominantly depends on how the same criteria is evaluated as well as on the features employed by the readers of print publications, including content authorship, content sources, non-disclosure of commercial and competitor details, and relevance of the presented data. To encourage informed user habits, numerous researchers have addressed the need for users to develop critical evaluation skills to assess online information. Metzger and colleagues extend this argument and highlight a variety of Internet credibility evaluation approaches, including checklist approaches and iterative models proposed by Fritch and Cromwell, and Walthen and Burkell. The mentioned approaches and models assume five features utilized by the users when they evaluate the credibility of content, namely: (1) reputation; (2) consistency; (3) endorsement; (4) persuasive intent; and (5) expectancy violation. These criteria assume that users evaluate the presented online data in a cognitive way to come up with balanced conclusions and credible judgments. Researchers hold that despite such popular checklist approach, enabling users to ask questions and provide feedback, matches the highlighted evaluation criteria, it, nonetheless, lacks practicality and effectiveness in critical evaluation of online content. This indicates that user efforts to determine content credibility will depend on the context of the pursued information.

The overwhelming majority of studies explore the ways people determine whether digital media content is credible, however there is insignificant amount of field work on online content perceptions held by adolescents and children. Such state of affairs is odd enough considering intimate relationship between young people and media technology. The tech-savvy youth are highly skilled in digital media applications, and freely consume and generate online content. Modern youth is capable of successfully navigating complex digital media environment. Indeed, the assessment criteria of content credibility efficiently disseminated through social networks embrace implicit advantages for young users that are more interconnected compared to the adult audiences. This means that adolescent users are much quicker in detecting the credibility of content sources by means of social networks.

In this context, Brown and Witherspoon forwarded the “media practice” model proving that adolescent users are more active. They are not merely online content recipients as most of the adult users are; they are advanced online media users with an emerging sense of self enabling them to objectively interpret media content. Being able to incorporate the right information, they actively initiate decision-making processes and draw fair and balanced conclusions. Still, even this progressive forefront category of users may have own constraints in terms of life experiences, cognitive and emotional development, and, subsequently, awareness of online media agenda. In other words, while tech-savvy adolescents may easily consume online content, meanwhile, they often fail to use critical tools and abilities to spot the right information and process it in effective way. Furthermore, in most instances adolescents lack sufficient skepticism towards digital media or particular online content; unlike most adults, these up-to-date media environment does not come as novelty to them. These considerations assume that one’s capacity to evaluate the quality of online healthcare data accurately depends on the level of digital media literacy regarded as a crucial skill for the young users of virtual content.