A study conducted by researchers at Northwest University found that about a third of college students, even with the help of the Internet, could not successfully recommend that a hypothetical friend who faced a broken condom seek out emergency contraception.

The study, conducted by sociologist Eszter Hargittai and Heather Young and recently published in the Policy Studies Organization's Policy & Internet journal, offers a revealing look at how real students interact with technology when seeking information on sexual health and medical care.

Emergency contraception, also known as the "morning after pill" or "Plan B," is a form of contraception that women can take even up to 72 hours after a sexual encounter. The Food and Drug administration approved its over-the-counter use in 2005. Researchers point out, however, that "The term 'over-the-counter' is a misnomer, however, given that [emergency contraception pills] are kept behind the pharmacy counter, requiring customers to provide proof of age and to obtain the medication directly from a pharmacist despite the fact that at the time of the study it did not require a signed form or special authorization for persons 18 and over."

About two-thirds of students, or 66 percent, delivered "successful" information after being given the problem and some time to do brief research on the internet. Students who knew about emergency contraception often arrived at the correct answer of going to a pharmacist within 72 hours by searching on medical sites like WebMD or seeking information on Planned Parenthood websites. However, a "successful" answer also included telling the hypothetical friend to seek emergency contraception from a doctor, hospital or clinic, which could delay taking the pill and diminish its effectiveness.

Students also arrived at anti-choice site MorningAfterPill.org due to its high Google ranking. "It appeared as the first link in a list of results on Google for queries relating to ECPs (e.g., morning after pill or emergency contraception)," the researchers wrote. "Some users felt that they should be able to trust plannedparenthood.org as well as morningafterpill.org because of the top-level dot-org domains." In fact, students often mistakenly placed confidence in sites simply because it had a "dot-org" url.

Students also arrived at incorrect information because of wrong assumptions -- like that nothing could be done to prevent a pregnancy in this senario -- or because they didn't know what to search for.

"Interestingly, while some students, upon hearing the task, began by searching for information based on the text of the question posed to them (e.g., broken condom or prevent pregnancy), other respondents assumed, incorrectly, that they already knew the best answer, which then may have led them down a path that is unlikely to produce the ideal answer. For example, some respondents who automatically assumed that there was nothing their friend could do to prevent pregnancy after unprotected intercourse, rather than searching for additional information, said they would instruct their friend to wait to see if she missed a period, take a pregnancy test, or visit an abortion clinic," the researchers wrote.

The researchers, who interviewed 200 students at two Midwestern colleges in 2008, admit that awareness today of emergency contraception may be higher now that it has been available longer and more public information campaigns have been conducted.

Misinformation about emergency contraception also persists in popular culture. AMC's The Walking Dead suffered for its portrayal of "the morning after pill" when a character attempted to use such pills for an abortion.

Researchers concluded, "The results highlight limits to young adults’ abilities in searching the Web. Despite lots of relevant material on the sought topic, many highly wired students with plenty of experience of using the Internet were unable to find material that would address the question they were posed. Users need to be educated about how the Web works and how to approach content they find online through a critical lens."

[Pharmacist via Stokkete / Shutterstock]

(h/t Inside Higher Ed)