Fortunately, the health issues that young Qataris find important for themselves and their friends are still lifestyle ones, as one would assume for this age cohort. They are concerned about diet and nutrition, fitness and exercise, hygiene, and sleep. For older adolescents, issues surrounding puberty and reproductive health were also important. Severe illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, HIV and heart diseases are still not perceived as that worrying among teens.
It is surprising that our respondents are fairly open about their interest in mental health information. Mental health problems seem to have been a taboo in Qatar until recently—for example, Qatar’s National Mental Health Strategy was launched only in 2013 (Supreme Council of Health, 2013).
Despite the fact that the internet offers teens access to an abundance of information on virtually any health topic they could think of, it is heartening that young people in Qatar still rely heavily on interpersonal sources of health information, including their parents, siblings, friends, and medical providers. Even when it comes to sensitive health topics, teens are actually more likely to speak to their parents than to look up information on the anonymous internet.
But to be sure, the vast majority of teens—94 percent—also turn to the internet for health information, and one in five claims they look up health information online even every day. The internet has far eclipsed other media as a source of health information--particularly newspapers and radio.
The internet often functions as a tool for additional or supplementary information about symptoms, treatments and medication, for checking if doctors gave the correct advice, but also for school projects. To some extent, only television can live up to internet sources. So, while the internet is not replacing parents, friends, and doctors; it may be supplementing them. This is why our study underscores the importance of making sure there is accurate, appropriate, and easily accessible health information available to teens online—the information is used, and acted upon, so it had better be good.
Most teens don’t seem to explore much beyond what appears when they conduct an online search. So, our survey also highlights the importance of helping teens develop digital health literacy skills. Given that three quarters of teens said they “come across” the information they were looking for “while browsing,” there seems to be plenty of room for improvement in terms of helping them hone their search skills.
Several government agencies and public health organizations in Qatar (e.g., the Ministry of Public Health, Hamad Medical Corporation, SIDRA, and the Primary Health Care Corporation) have been spearheading teen-oriented efforts on topics such as obesity, tobacco use and dental health. But all recent health campaigns in Qatar have not been as memorable as one would hope. For example, even reminding our respondents of the names of fairly prominent health campaigns did not inspire more than half of our respondents to remember one of them specifically. Qatari teens were most likely to recall the more universal campaign Kullana for Health and Safety. But interestingly, the Sahatak Awalan website is not used that often--but if it is, it belongs to the most trusted sources on health among Qatari teens.
Many Qatari teens have also gone beyond online health information and turned to digital tools like apps and games. Wearable devices, however, are not particularly popular among teens. Specific health trackers seem not to be needed because apps with similar functions are also built into smartphones.
We do have to be aware that just as teens are using the internet as a source of information and advice for health promotion, it is also a pathway for accessing information that could have a negative impact on their health (e.g., helping them access porn sites and promoting eating disorders). Also, their naivety when it comes to posting personal health problems is alarming. These are even more reasons to ensure teens have strong digital health literacy—they need the judgment and skills to know how to assess and deal with the abundance of information they come across online. Teaching digital literacy skills would seem to be an appropriate part of health classes, so that teens are empowered to search effectively for information on their own, and evaluate it appropriately. Health teachers can also function as guides, helping direct teens to the best sources of information.