Despite being known as the "digital generation," today's college students have trouble navigating the Web to get information about how to use and purchase emergency contraception, a new study suggests.


In the study, about 200 college students were asked what they would do if a friend called them late at night and asked how to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. The students were allowed to search the Web for information to answer the question.


Two-thirds were able to conclude that their friend should seek emergency contraception, but fewer than 40 percent gave the ideal answer: to purchase such contraception over-the-counter at a pharmacy.


"These results suggest that despite their highly wired lifestyles, many young adults do not have the necessary skills to navigate the vast amounts of information available online with expertise," said study researcher Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.


Being aware of emergency contraception before the study made a big difference, the researchers found.


"Students who did not seem to have prior knowledge of emergency contraception often used a variant of the search term 'prevent pregnancy,' and did not do a very good job at locating information about emergency contraception," Hargittai said.


When looking through their search results to judge the credibility of the sites they found, many students relied heavily on domain names ending with ".org," which are not any better than ".com" sites for providing credible information, Hargittai said. 


Some of the answers the students gave to their friend's problem included: "wait it out," "wash genitals," "adoption" and "taking a pregnancy test."


The study began during the fall of 2007, 14 months after the Food and Drug Administration ruled that emergency contraception (such as Plan B) would be available for purchase at pharmacies without a prescription.


The research shows that information about important changes to health-related regulations might not spread quickly among young people, Hargittai said.


"Young adults are much more likely than older adults to turn to the Internet as a resource when seeking health information," she said. "We need to incorporate into college curricula certain aspects of digital media usage, such as efficient searching and also credibility assessment of sources that people consult, to help young adults navigate the Internet with better expertise."


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