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Digital natives and health communication

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

When you chose to read this blog post what did you use? A newspaper? A book? No, you used a digital device connected to the internet, because that’s what we use now. Writing for print is not a lost art, it’s just that there’s better reach, range, and relevance to the writing when it’s shared online instead. Digital literacy is becoming increasingly important in health communication, as more and more information is available online and healthcare organizations are actively using digital channels to reach their audiences.

Last week I wrote about how digital health communication makes a difference in the world. This week, I’m launching a mini-series about why digital literacy is essential to make that difference. Today we’re looking at digital natives and factors to consider when designing digital health communication for people.

Digital natives, health information, and turtles

At a time when the most updated health information is found online, digital literacy allows us to access and interpret health-related information more efficiently. Being digitally literate, we can quickly search for and find relevant information, and understand it in context. This kind of skill provides us with the ability to effectively communicate our own health-related information to others. We can use digital channels to share our stories, experiences, and updates on our health.

A small digression here, if you’ll allow me. When I think about the world it’s hard not to see the problems first. And when I think about what we’ve done to solve those problems, I see more problems because the solution doesn’t include everyone, everywhere, all at once. And much like that delightful film, the world is in complete chaos, and finding a solution means looking inward and embracing the chaos within. It’s like falling through a portal forever because there’s nothing to hold on to. Now, the problem I most often see within and in the world around me is infinite regress. I’m no epistemologist, but I’ll try to explain it using my favourite response to problem finders: it’s turtles all the way down.

Factors like language and culture sensitivity, novelty, and actionability count towards sustainable health communication design.

Infinite regress is when one thing depends on another thing to exist, the suggestion that the second thing needs something else to itself exist is an idea that needs that third thing to exist in the first place. And so on. Eventually, you’ll see that everything is connected from a long long time ago and it’s okay to pick just to stop after a point and say this is turtle level is good enough to begin changing the world.

Turtles all the way down. |Designed by The Freelancing Quill (2023).

So, as you read this mini-series, I will only go down to a certain problem (read: turtle) level because I’m not trying to earn a second Masters by researching every facet of it. This is just a blog. Let’s all calm down.

Okay, now back to the prerequisite of digital literacy.

A digital native is someone who can navigate the internet through digital devices. Phones, laptops, tablets, and even a fridge at this point — yeah, the internet of things is a thing. This kind of navigation is learned from a young age and is built on regular access that is updated as technology evolves. You’ll rarely find a child without a smartphone and an Instagram account these days because digital communication has become the norm. However, not all young people are digital natives with great access. There are systemic and accessibility issues based on socioeconomic and cultural factors, i.e., there are a bunch of people who grew up without regular, individual access to the internet and there are a bunch more people who are told they are not allowed to be online or have autonomy. Even though that’s a whole other can of worms, it directly impacts who gets to see all the updated health information online.

Factors like language and culture sensitivity, novelty, and actionability count towards sustainable health communication design. How well an infographic about, let’s say, diabetes does depends on whether the basic information about what it is and how it happens makes sense to the end user. And even if that makes sense to them, does the infographic consider their fresh food availability? Or their closest clinic? Or their cultural beliefs about food? Their socioeconomic status and the ways that affect their emotional stress that in turn harms their physical health?

These are just some of the systemic questions I had to work with for my MA research. What I learned from my research is that effective design is a solution to multilayered problems (read: turtles). And if we look too deep, it’s turtles all the way down. So, when it comes to making health communication accessible and relevant and all the other important things, our first concern should be whether it will reach the end user at all. Digitally and emotionally. Simplifying information is one thing, but getting people to convert it into knowledge that influences their daily health behaviours depends on how well the designer can make the method of delivery make sense to them first. Maybe digital isn’t for everyone, but it’s taking over anyway. And as we plug ourselves online every morning and learn about the world and be able to evaluate the credibility of that information on our own, it’s worth considering whether our target audience is able to do it just like we can.

Tumblr posts often deliver wisdom. Here's one of my favourite reminders that no matter which turtle level I choose, I must make a willing and positive difference there. | Source: screenshot from Pinterest

... our first concern should be whether it will reach the end user at all.

There is a gap and some great organisations are bridging it every day. Libraries, anti-internet censorship media organisations, and community engagement programmes around the world see the need to empower people who don’t normally navigate the internet. There are several in every country, so pick yours and make health information accessible by supporting digital literacy.


If you made this all the way down here, thank you for taking the time to read this work. TFQ is available for content writing and editing for new clients from 15 February 2023 — take a look at our website to learn how we can help you share your ideas with clarity and confidence.

Next week we look at how digital literacy keeps us safe online in the context of health communication. See you then!

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