‘Dr. Google’ can ease cancer confusion

CORNELL / U. PENNSYLVANIA (US) — When it comes to cancer, the Internet can actually clarify misinformation rather than fuel fatalistic fears, a new study finds.

Inundated with reports about cancer causes and prevalence, many people adopt fatalistic attitudes about its prevention, believing that getting cancer is a matter of fate or luck, previous research has shown. But a new study suggests that the Internet can be used as a tool to help clarify cancer confusion and promote prevention practices.

“We were surprised. In the age of WebMD and ‘Dr. Google,’ we were concerned about the potential for the internet to widen gaps in knowledge and behaviors to prevent cancer,” says Jeff Niederdeppe, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University who co-authored the report with Derek Freres, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and Chul-joo Lee, assistant professor of communication at the University of Illinois.


“Some websites contain inaccurate and incomplete information, posted without editorial review, which could add to levels of confusion and a sense that everything causes cancer,” Niederdeppe says. “We were also concerned that the ability to jump quickly from one snippet of information to another via links could lead to information overload.”

But, as reported in the Journal of Communication, the team found that such interlinked, integrated information can actually promote learning. In a survey of nearly 2,000 US adults, aged 40 to 70, they found that those who sought health information on the Internet were more likely to have positive beliefs about cancer prevention.

Moreover, the effect was strongest for those with low levels of formal education, suggesting that the internet has potential to be a powerful tool to reduce inequalities in cancer knowledge and prevention behaviors.

This is important because those with positive outlooks are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors that could help prevent cancer, such as eating fruits and vegetables and getting screened for cancer, Niederdeppe says.

“Reducing cancer fatalism, especially among people with low socioeconomic status, is arguably one of the most important public health goals in the nation,” Lee says.

In previous studies, Niederdeppe and Lee showed that frequent exposure to short reports about cancer in the media, particularly via local television, can increase cancer fatalism over time. Another recent study showed that newspaper coverage that includes information about how to avert the threats can help reduce feelings of information overload. But there is much left to learn, Niederdeppe says.

“There are still large gaps in cancer-related knowledge between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged populations. Access and use of the internet aren’t magic bullets that are going solve these issues, but there is considerable potential to use the web to reduce harmful beliefs about cancer’s causes and prevention,”

Researchers from the University of Illinois contributed to the study that was supported by the National Cancer Institute.

Source: Cornell University