If you are wanting speedy online sexual health advice pull out your laptop and don’t bother talking to your smartphone digital assistant, according to an article by New Zealand researchers published today in the Christmas issue of the BMJ.

The team of researchers led by the University of Otago, Wellington’s Professor Nick Wilson investigated how well the internet and digital assistants  – like Siri and Google Assistant -answered 50 questions on sexual health.

The background to this work included a 2017 UK survey of 3221 people aged 16 years or older which found that 41 per cent of internet users go online for health related question, with half of these (22 per cent of the total) having done so in the previous week.

This led the New Zealand researchers to investigate the quality of various online sexual health advice and to consider the role of digital assistants in smartphones.

“To find out whether smartphones and their digital assistants offer quality sexual health advice, we jumped into bed (albeit independently), pulled out our smartphones, and asked Siri and Google Assistant. We then compared their answers with a laptop based Google search,” said Wilson.

The researchers who have a variety of accents (Kiwi, Kiwi/Scottish and Kiwi/Ulster  English), selected 50 questions, mainly from expert sources, to test the software.

They were surprised that expert sources were identified around half the time (for the best responses), and some of these were expert local New Zealand services, for example, the NZ Family Planning Association and a New Zealand university site. But they reported that all the online approaches could do better at finding expert information.

“We also got some odd responses, such as a question about menopause which came up with the Wikipedia site for the show ‘Menopause the Musical’ and another interpreted STI (sexually transmitted infections) as a stock market code,” says Professor Wilson.

“Our research findings show the importance of improving digital literacy in the general population.”

“The research also shows that more needs to done to encourage internet users to treat information in online lifestyle magazines with caution as compared to expert sources,” he says.

Link to full BMJ paper (which includes the 50 questions) http://press.psprings.co.uk/bmj/december/technology.pdf



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