You can find just about anything on the internet, including information that is downright dodgy. So while the web is an excellent source of information about topics like pregnancy or parenting, the information it contains must be approached with caution and a critical eye. Just about anyone can start a blog or webpage these days. And with the latest technology and a few well written marketing claims, it’s not that hard to make information sound credible.
So how do you separate the reliable information based on scientific evidence from the opinion pieces, ill-informed science, misconceptions and myths? It’s a challenging task but with some critical evaluation it’s possible to sort the good from the bad. And when you can do that you’ll be able to access a wealth of up-to-date and reliable information, authored and published by well-informed and qualified individuals and organisations.
What do you want to know?
Before you even begin assessing the quality of information you’ll need to work out exactly what you want to know. It’s relatively easy to perform a web search, but if you enter the wrong keywords or ones which are too general, your search results probably won’t give you what you’re looking for. If you want very general information use a general term like parenting or pregnancy. But if you’re after something more specific you’ll need to instruct your internet search engine. You might add extra details about the stage or pregnancy or the age of your child, or additional keywords which capture the things you’re curious about.
Whether you’re interested in a specific stage of development (e.g. week 6 of pregnancy, or the toddler stage), a particular health condition (e.g. heartburn in pregnancy or bed wetting) or parenting topic (e.g. singing with children (link to kids songs) or deciding how much TV they should watch), you’re more likely to get the information you want if you give the search engine these specific details.
How comprehensive is the information provided?
When you begin looking for websites containing information about your topic of interest, it’s also important to assess the level of detail provided. For example if you’re looking for information about a particular disease, a good website will provide comprehensive information on the what the disease is, what causes it, what happens when a person has it, how doctors diagnose and treat the condition and what you need to do if you’re recovering. Depending on the topic you’re investigating, the type of information will vary, but finding a site which provides comprehensive information is important.
Who wrote or edited the information?
Once you’ve found a few websites with the type of information you’re interested in, it’s time to start assessing the quality of the information they contain. A good question to begin with is who wrote (or edited) the information you’re reading. Websites do not always publish the name of the author and might attribute articles instead to an editorial board of the publishing organisation. So you may have to look carefully to get the information.
If the author’s name is published, check that there is also some information about their qualifications and experience. Do they sound like the right credentials for a person providing pregnancy and/or parenting advice? The author does not necessarily need a university degree- if you’re interested in hearing about the experiences of other mums and dads having children might be all the experience they need. But if you’re looking for information on health during pregnancy, or developing your child’s mind through play, a professional, for example a doctor or a developmental psychologist, is probably the most appropriate author. Do a quick search using the author’s name and try to verify their credentials independently- anyone with true expertise will almost certainly be mentioned on the web in relation to books they have published, a university they have conducted research for or a reputable organisation in the field they have worked for.
Who takes responsibility for the information?
If the author’s name does not appear on the webpage, look for other details which can help you assess whether or not the information published is reliable. If there is an editorial board which checks the website contents, what qualifications and experience do the editorial board members have? Is there a person who is likely to know about information specific to your country, for example which immunisations pregnant women and children in Australia should have (bearing in mind that recommendations differ between countries)? Does the website contain information about how the content is checked and the quality assurance processes they have in place?
Look at the about us information on the website for more information about the creators of the website.
Who published the information?
The reputation and purpose of the publisher is also important. Are they providing information so that they can sell their products or is their main purpose to provide information? Organisations like government departments, professional associations and universities are more likely to focus on providing information than selling products. If there’s a commercial interest (and that may just be from advertisements on the website) you need to consider this and determine if advertising is clearly marked and separated from the actual information on the website.
There is also reliable information published by commercial organisations, so you don’t need to rule out all commercial sources. But you should bear in mind that the information is from a commercial provider and they’re not simply putting it there out of the goodness of their hearts. Also bear in mind that just because the organisation publishing the information is non-profit, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not pushing an agenda. For example religious and political organisations are not trying to make money, but the information they provide will be biased and not necessarily based on fact.
There are a few important things to check regardless of the publisher. You’ll want to ensure they have provided contact details (look for a contact us page) including a physical address and telephone number. If all you can find is an email address, it might be that the organisation only exists on the internet (and that’s a good reason to be sceptical about the content). Does the website allow you and other readers to post comments or ask questions? If there’s no way to provide feedback, it might be a bad sign.
Who was the information intended for?
Once you’ve found information that is credible and written by authors with relevant experience, you’ll also need to consider whether the information was written for people like you. Information in online medical journals and written by professional associations is usually reliable, but it’s often written for a professional audience and won’t be particularly useful for someone without specialist knowledge. If the articles on the website contain so much jargon you need to look up every second word in the dictionary, it’s not much help. Look for information targeted at parents- many professional organisations or doctor created websites also publish fact sheets and information written in layman’s terms. Finding information which is easy to understand is important, as even the most reliable source can be misinterpreted and that’s far more likely if it’s difficult to read.
How was the information sourced?
There’s a big difference between opinion and fact, and when assessing information on the internet, it’s a good idea to look for a list of references which the author used to write the article. Information on health and child development, for example, should be attributed to reputable sources like text books, government guidelines and journal articles. Even if someone is sharing their opinion on a particular topic, they should be able to back it up by referring to high quality sources of published information. However not all information needs referencing, and if you’re interested in hearing about the experiences of other mums and dads, you needn’t worry if they haven’t provided a reference list (but you should worry if they don’t have any children of their own but claim to be experienced parents!).
When was the information published?
It’s also important to check when the information was published. The internet makes accessing recent information easy, but it’s important to bear in mind that ageing websites hang around just like ageing books on the library shelf. You can usually find the date of publication or last review at the beginning or end of the article. If there is no date of publication, you’ll need to be a little wary as the information might have been great 15 years ago, but is completely irrelevant now.
Are there hidden costs?
Is the website recommended by government or reputable associations?
Looking for websites recommended by governments or professional, non-profit associations can also be a great help. If it’s recommended by government, you can rest assured that the information on the site has been checked for reliability and accuracy. For example in Australia the government’s Healthinsite provides links to information on a range of health topics. But they only link to publishers with a good reputation and checks and balances to ensure their content is reliable, accurate and up to date. Likewise, medical and health websites are checked for credibility before they are allowed to display the HON code badge.
Layout and readability
The layout and readability of the website is also an important consideration. It’s easy to present information in lots of fancy ways on the internet, but if animations drive you crazy or if you don’t want to click to a new page to read every sentence, the fanciest website is probably not the best one for you. You’ll find that some websites publish big chunks of text with just a few pictures and others break up the written material with plenty of photos, videos and animations. What’s right for you really depends on the style you like reading.
Use the 10 tips on evaluating internet information on parenting and pregnancy to make sure you’ve considered all the important points.