Social media and the internet are now among the most popular sources for young Australians to seek nutritional guidance. Are adolescents equipped with the skills to decide what is and what is not credible health information? Their level of health literacy will give us the answer.
A recent study found that 63% of teenagers from secondary schools in Nigeria used the internet to access health information every week, and 100% used it every month. What is concerning is that only 38% of the adolescents actually possessed adequate health literacy skills necessary to interpret and implement this information.Shabi IN, Oyewusi FO. Health Literacy and Internet Health Information Use among In-school Adolescents in Osun State, South-West, Nigeria. J Consum Health Internet. 2018;22(1):25–41.
Health literacy refers to the ability of someone to access, read, interpret, understand and implement information to enable good health. Higher health literacy is positively associated with intake of more fruit and vegetables and even a preference for healthy foods.Ronto R, Ball L, Pendergast D, Harris N. Adolescents’ perspectives on food literacy and its impact on their dietary behaviours. Appetite. 2016 Dec 1;107:549–57.
It is not only adolescents who have demonstrated poorly in this area, in fact, over 60% of Australians have insufficient health literacy skills. Lack of education, food knowledge and skills, and the spread of misleading information could all be contributing factors to this disconcerting statistic.
Adolescence is a time of developing and using health literacy skills for the first time. In childhood, parental control over diet takes away most food choices. Adolescents are a key vulnerable population in terms of being at risk of not meeting their nutritional needs. Growth spurts, budget restraints, preference for processed foods and lack of access to healthy food can all be factors that can affect nutritional status. Another major contributor is the lack of health and nutrition knowledge that can lead to poor nutritional choices. A further barrier involves the insufficient practical skills to be able to purchase, prepare and cook healthy food.
What is key, is helping to improve the health literacy skills of our adolescents while we still can. Adding intervention programs in schools allow skills to be developed from a young age as they become increasingly independent.Ronto R, Ball L, Pendergast D, Harris N. What is the status of food literacy in Australian high schools? Perceptions of home economics teachers. Appetite. 2017 Jan 1;108:326–34. The World Health Organisation has stated that adolescents who are given the necessary nutrition education during school are more likely to carry healthy behaviours into adulthood. Studies have also propositioned the school environment as the most influential setting to educate teenagers on food and nutrition, largely due to declining support and knowledge at home.Ronto R, Ball L, Pendergast D, Harris N. Adolescents’ perspectives on food literacy and its impact on their dietary behaviours. Appetite. 2016 Dec 1;107:549–57.
Woolworths conducted a study that shockingly revealed 92% of the children and teenagers aged between 6 and 17 years old did not know that bananas grow on plants. If future generations are disconnected with how their food is produced, it will be more difficult for them to make informed nutritional choices about what they eat. Enhancing practical skills such as cooking and budgeting can also be ways to empower youth and give them the tools to thrive.
The use of the internet to source health information is not inherently bad. It enables affordable and accessible means to acquire information, that can be beneficial, and from credible sources. Our teenagers need to learn to question the information they see on the internet and have the awareness to reject potentially harmful health and nutrition advice.
References [ + ]