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Using the Web to Engage Teens in Health Promotion

For the past two years, since 1995, the TeenNet Project, coordinated by the Department of Behavioural Science, University of Toronto, has worked with youth to develop an interactive Web site called CyberIsle . CyberIsle components relate to a wide range of teen health and lifestyle issues, with a particular focus on smoking prevention and cessation. Information is presented in a non-judgmental, fun environment through games, quizzes, simulation and peer discussions.

What makes the CyberIsle project unique is the combination of three distinct processes: high tech web site development, health promotion research, and community participation. Teens and teachers have been integrally involved in all stages of design, development, evaluation and dissemination.

Process evaluation of CyberIsle has indicated that teens find it engaging, graphically appealing, relevant to their health needs and that it encourages them to think about changing their smoking behaviour.

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The TeenNet project uses an action research and evaluation framework.

Conducting health promotion research on the Internet offers a unique opportunity to unobtrusively collect qualitative and quantitative data (however, CyberIsle does require on-line consent from teen users). Quantitatively, data can include numbers of users, gender, age, nationality and pathways of use. Qualitatively, thematic analysis of on-line discussion groups can be conducted without the intrusion of a researcher. Both quantitative and qualitative methods are being used to evaluate the whole TeenNet project as well as the CyberIsle web site.

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Quantitative Results:

As of May 31st, 1997 there have been 10,484 visits to CyberIsle with 1610 registered users. Unlike most web sites where use is male dominated, CyberIsle users are 51.4% female. The average age of users is 15.7 years. The most visited place on the site is the peer discussion group, HotTalk. Registered visitors spend an average of 20 minutes exploring the site. Visitors have come from Canada, USA, Australia, UK, Bahamas, Estonia, Kuwait, Poland, Thailand, Iceland, Israel, etc.

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Qualitative Results:

The most recent qualitative evaluation of CyberIsle took place in April / May of this year, 1997. 41 teens from across Southern Ontario participated. Participants were given 45 minutes to explore CyberIsle. They then filled out a short answer questionnaire, followed by a 30 minute focus group. The average age of participants was15 years old, 21 were male and 20 female. 19 lived in a city, 21 in a town and 1 in the country. The youth identified with 15 different ethno-cultural groups (other than Canadian), and 5 teens with physical disabilities participated.

Smokers indicate Makin' Cents (a simulation which examines the cost of smoking) encourages them to think about their smoking behaviour:

"(it) actually crossed my mind when I just started thinking about how much money I actually spent smoking and how many (cigarettes) I actually smoke. It made me start thinking maybe I should start quitting..."

Youth indicate that CyberIsle is meeting teen health information needs:

"Yes...because instead of going to their family doctor, or something it's another thing ... not being humiliated or anything or being conscious of oneself so it'is better just to go on to this (CyberIsle) and get information off the Net."

Teens feel CyberIsle is a better way to learn health compared with traditional school health education:

"when you want to find out something, you don't want to ask the teacher because everyone will (ask) 'why do you want to know that'. So when you go into CyberIsle you can read...what you want to know can be embarrassed at school."

Teens like the anonymity of Hot Talk (peer discussion groups):

"... if you can't talk to one of your friends or a parent...and you don't really know who you're talking to sometimes it's better that way 'cause you just say what you feel... you can compare your thoughts with somebody else... if they have something to say then they will talk back to you and it could help you".

Preliminary qualitative analysis of Hot Talk has been conducted on 8 discussion topics, developed by teens, that are currently active.

TeenNet will continue to evaluate CyberIsle as the project moves into it's second research phase - Efficacy and Engagement.

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For further information about TeenNet


Harvey A. Skinner, Ph.D. or Meg Morrison, M.Ed. (Health)

Dept. of Behavioural Science

University of Toronto

Toronto, Ontario M5S 1A8

Telephone Harvey (416) 978-8989 or Meg at (416) 978-7543

Fax (416) 978-2087

email: or