Ruben L. Bach, Alexander Wenz
Studying health-related internet and mobile device use using web logs and smartphone records

PLOS ONE, 2020: 15, issue 6, (article no. e0234663)
ISSN: 1932-6203 (online)

Many people use the internet to seek information that will help them understand their body and their health. Motivations for such behaviors are numerous. For example, users may wish to figure out a medical condition by searching for symptoms they experience. Similarly, they may seek more information on how to treat conditions they have been diagnosed with or seek resources on how to live a healthy life. With the ubiquitous availability of the internet, searching and finding relevant information is easier than ever before and a widespread phenomenon. To understand how people use the internet for health-related information, we use data from a sample of 1,959 internet users. A unique combination of data containing four months of users’ browsing histories and mobile application use on computers and mobile devices allows us to study which health websites they visited, what information they searched for and which health applications they used. Survey data inform us about users’ socio-demographic background, medical conditions and other health-related behaviors. Results show that women, young users, users with a university education and nonsmokers are most likely to use the internet and mobile applications for health-related purposes. On search engines, internet users most frequently search for pharmacies, symptoms of medical conditions and pain. Moreover, users seem most interested in information on how to live a healthy life, alternative medicine, mental health and women’s health. With this study, we extend the field’s understanding of who seeks and consumes health information online, what users look for as well as how individuals use mobile applications to monitor their health. Moreover, we contribute to methodological research by exploring new sources of data for understanding humans, their preferences and behaviors.