UBC program teaches kids how to navigate health information online

Smartphones, tablets and laptops are an inevitable part of many student’s daily activities. As these devices become more ingrained in our lives, parents and guardians may be wondering how to ensure youngsters know how to safely navigate the online world.

Dr. Kendall Ho, professor in UBC’s department of emergency medicine, and his colleagues in the digital emergency medicine unit have developed a classroom-based program to teach students between the ages of 9-14 how to safely navigate and assess health information on the internet. The program, called Learning for Life, aims to encourage kids’ healthy pursuits and reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.

Learning for Life aims to encourage kids’ healthy pursuits and reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases.

In this Q&A, Dr. Ho explains why it’s important for children to learn digital health literacy, how it can help them make healthier lifestyle decisions, and how more schools across B.C. can implement the program.

Why did you develop Learning for Life?

Approximately 440,000 British Columbians, or almost nine per cent of the provincial population, have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes—projected to increase to 630,000 in the next decade. Childhood is a crucial time to shape health-related behaviours and reduce modifiable risk factors for Type 2 diabetes.

Therefore, we wanted to see if teaching children how to access credible health information online would promote healthy behaviour toward wellness and diabetes prevention, and at the same time support these children in forming useful and positive habits in accessing health content online.

Learning for Life builds critical skills for students to competently use technology for health by teaching digital health literacy—the ability to search for, find, understand, and assess quality of health information using digital tools and to use that information to stay healthy.

Why is it important for children to learn digital literacy skills when it comes to health information online?

School-aged children in B.C. are incredibly tech savvy: nine of 10 B.C. students in Grades 7-12 have a cellphone, and more than six of 10 B.C. students report accessing the internet unsupervised before age eight.

Before our study, most education about health information on the internet has been in high schools. Our research on Learning for Life suggests that a significant number of students before age eight are already accessing the internet unsupervised, which raises the question as to what age we should start digital health education.

How successful has this program been so far?

Dr. Kendall Ho, Professor in UBC’s Department of Emergency Medicine

Since Learning for Life was implemented in 11 B.C. classrooms for six weeks during the last school year, we have seen a significant increase in students’ digital health literacy scores.

Seventy-four per cent of students reported making changes to stay healthy (e.g., eating more fruits/vegetables), which they attributed directly to Learning for Life. When recalling healthy behaviours, 93 per cent of students reported at least one behaviour to stay healthy, and 22 per cent included at least one Canadian guideline taught in the program. Over half of students currently had a personal smartphone/computer and spent on average three hours/day using screen-based devices or watching TV.

How can schools implement this program?

Learning for Life program resources are available online free to all educators at https://digem.med.ubc.ca/projects/ubclearningforlife/. Resources were designed to be adaptable, engaging and to address the B.C. curriculum core competencies.

The research was funded by Lawson Foundation, an Ontario foundation promoting health and wellness of children to prevent diabetes.

The digital emergency medicine unit also works with the following partner organizations on the Learning for Life initiative: BC Children’s Hospital, Vancouver Coastal Health, BC Health Literacy Networks, Shapedown BC, Live 5-2-1-0 and Scope, Childhood Obesity Foundation, Vancouver Public Library, BC School-Centred Mental Health Coalition. The school partners were Admiral Seymour Elementary in Vancouver, Skaha Lake Middle School in Penticton and Ecole Squamish Elementary in Squamish.