With smartphones changing the culture in so many ways, more and more young people are using their mobile devices to keep track of their health, and the trend is not going unnoticed by advertisers.
Young adults are much more likely than older people to have a smartphone and to use it to look for health information, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which surveys technology trends. And their health concerns differ markedly from those of older people.
Nearly 100 million Americans own a smartphone, but “younger people use them very differently,” said John Mangano, a vice president of comScore, an online research firm. Three of the top five symptoms searched for on Yahoo Mobile in January were early pregnancy, herpes and H.I.V. None of these symptoms showed up among the top searches on desktop computers, which are more likely to be used by older people.
The most popular symptom searches on PCs included gastroenteritis, heart attacks, gout and shingles, Yahoo said, adding that the encyclopedic medical symptoms checker on WebMD was the most popular site of its kind among PC users. On WebMD, the top symptoms searched for in January were muscle strain, gastroenteritis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Older patients often use their desktops to look up side effects of their medications, said Dr. Audrey K. Chun, a geriatrician who heads Mount Sinai Hospital’s Martha Stewart Center for Living in Manhattan. For example, George Yourke, 79, a retired architect, said he used his iMac to learn more about injections prescribed for his knee.
Besides tracking signs of pregnancy and various sexually transmitted diseases, mobile device owners frequently downloaded apps to help manage their eating, drinking and exercise, according to Everyday Health, an online company that has 30 million visitors a month to its health, diet and exercise Web sites.
The number of visits coming from mobile device users increased fivefold during the last 24 months, said Benjamin Wolin, chief executive of Everyday Health.
About a third of smartphone users tracked diet and exercise electronically in January, comScore said. The numbers were slightly higher for iPad and other tablet users — 35 percent for diet watchers and 39 percent for exercise fans.
Ariel Young, 20, a biology major at George Washington University, said she exchanged text messages “at least 75 times a day.” Part of that traffic is with close friends who trade tips on healthy foods and recipes. “I’m checking calories,” she said.
Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Pew Internet project, said, “Once they have a smartphone, people are more likely to participate in online conversations about health.”
Advertisers are taking note. Led by auto companies and packaged goods makers, they spent $3 billion online in 2011, including $818 million for mobile ads, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported. That was more than for print or radio, although television still got the largest share of the ad dollars.
Geoff McCleary, group director for mobile innovation at Digitas Health, which is owned by the Publicis Groupe, the Paris-based ad giant, said some health care companies were noticing that more people were using a mobile device to visit their Web sites.
Some companies are using surveys and social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest to learn more about customers they could reach via smartphone.
“It may change the way we craft strategy,” Mr. McCleary said.
Health care companies have been slow to advertise online. ComScore said health ads were only 1 percent of all online display ads at the end of last year.
As for placing their ads on smartphones, many drug companies are struggling with the challenges of fitting safety information required by regulators, like side effects, onto the smaller screens of phones, Mr. McCleary said.
Heartbeat Ideas, a privately held ad agency, advises health care clients to “max out” the portion of their ad budget allocated to searches including mobile devices. “The return on investment is much higher than radio or TV,” Lee Slovitt, Heartbeat’s media director, said.
“If searchers are actively looking for information on a given condition or a specific drug, they are much more likely to respond to a commercial message,” he said.
Mr. Slovitt said online viewing had “pretty much reached parity with television, with around 40 hours a week spent online and 40 hours watching television” among the most avid watchers.
Some of those viewers may be doing both at once.
In a world of multimedia and multitasking, “a person watching a commercial on a TV show or looking at a print ad can be spurred to go online on her phone to get more information about that specific treatment,” Mr. McCleary said.
“Mobile is not just used when you are out and about,” he said. “Close to 75 percent have actually done searches in their homes.”
ComScore said 17 million people used their phone to get health information in September, October and November last year. But there is a downside. In a study in January, many said they were worried about the potential for privacy violations.
Seventy percent of people seeking health information on smartphones said they had privacy concerns, Mr. Mangano said, while well over half of those using a tablet, a desktop or laptop had similar worries.
Smartphones are more likely to be used in public places where they can be lost, he noted. But that has not stopped the youthful searchers.
“I do health searches all the time,” said Brittany Lashley, 20, who is majoring in Chinese at the University of Maryland at College Park. She surfs the Web on her iPod Touch for food and drinks that she hopes will increase her energy level and help her stay awake and sharp for late-night studying.