National Children’s Dental Health Month: Caregiver use of Internet and social media to gather pediatric oral health information: A research paper

These dentists conducted research at a pediatric practice in Virginia to help dentists determine how they can reach potential patients. The research reveals where parents are looking for pediatric dentists via the Internet and social media.

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To coincide with National Children’s Dental Health Month in February, these dentists released their research paper to help pediatric dental practitioners determine how to use the Internet and social media outlets to grow their dental practices.


How do caregivers use the Internet and social media to search for pediatric dentists and pediatric oral health information? This study allowed us to determine the most popular Internet sites and social media services used to obtain this information, which is useful for practitioners.


The aim of this study was to investigate and analyze the behavior of caregivers using the Internet and social media as it relates to their child’s oral health. What digital services did they use to obtain information regarding finding pediatric dentists or oral health information for children? These data are pertinent to practitioners because it tells them how to best disseminate pediatric oral health information to caregivers on digital interfaces. Furthermore, it may allow practitioners to understand where and how to allocate resources for advertising on the Internet and through social media. To date, limited literature exists elucidating what services caregivers use, if any, in searching for dentists or oral health information for their children. This study expands on a previous pilot study done by Morris, (2015).1

Review of the literature

Internet use has grown significantly over the last two decades, with around 84% of American adults using it in 2015.2 Internet and social media sources have become important tools for finding health information. Worldwide almost 5% of all Internet searches are for health-related information.3 Two of the most commonly searched areas are information on illnesses, and on nutrition/fitness.4 According to the Pew Research Center’s “Health Online 2013,” as many as 72% of Internet users and 52% of cell phone users reported using online resources to gather health information during the past year. Additionally, 26% of Internet users reported using social media for health issues.5

Because of the sheer volume of information on the Internet, currently over 70,000 websites,6 it’s important to understand how caregivers use this information to obtain knowledge about pediatric oral health. This understanding is especially true because much of the information on the Internet has several shortcomings, including uneven quality, difficulties understanding the information, and the potential for harm and risks of overconsumption of the information.7

Practitioners are increasingly using these same Internet and social media sites to advertise their practices. These services include search engine ranking, practice promotion, professional development, networking, and patient education. Vehicles for social media include Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Instagram, and online discussion forums. Internet search engines include Google, Bing, and Yahoo, among others. When searching for health information, 77% of Internet users began at a search engine while 13% began at a health information.3 It’s critical to find out where caregivers are searching for pediatric dentists and oral health information in order to be able to advertise more effectively.

Research design

The population of this study included any caregivers, individuals primarily responsible for caring for children (such as parents or legal guardians), who bring their children for an initial dental visit to the Bon Secours Pediatric Dental Office in Richmond, Virginia. (Social media refers to electronic tools that enhance communication, support, and collaboration, and enables users to connect and share content.8)


The front office staff and dental assistants distributed the survey. The voluntary survey instrument was distributed to caregivers of new patients to be seen at Bon Secours Pediatric Dental Associates’ office. Caregivers completed the survey only once, even if they had multiple children. The survey was only available in English, and consisted of 12 questions concerning caregiver demographics as well as Internet and social media use relating to pediatric oral health.

WATCH:National Chidren's Dental Health Month slideshow


Limitations of the study included survey fatigue, the use of English only on the survey, participants must be literate, and difficulty distributing the survey. The sample size was also relatively small and from a single location in the United States.


A total of 111 surveys were completed by caregivers during the child’s initial visit to Bon Secours Pediatric Dental Associates between February 2015 and September 2015. It was found that 92% of all patients had dental insurance, with private insurance making up 54% and Medicaid making up 46%. A majority of participants were female (79%) between the ages of 18 and 30 (42%).

The main focus of the study was to investigate the potential relationship between insurance type and Internet and social media use as it relates to finding a dentist and oral health information. First-time office visiting parents with private insurance were more likely to use the Internet to find a dentist than were those with Medicaid. Other findings included that 60% of parents used the Internet to search for a dentist or pediatric oral health information, with Google being the most popular search engine at over 90% use. The use of social media to search for a dentist and pediatric oral health information was much lower at 10% to 15%, and Facebook was the most popular source.

Participants were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being highly likely, how likely they would be to use different Internet and social media sites to search for a pediatric dentist. To make it more relevant to practitioners, we specifically looked at how often these Internet/social media services were given a rating of 8 or higher. Out of 111, 90 indicated they were likely or very likely to use Google to search for a dentist. This was followed by 54 out of 111 for the office website, 46 out of 111 for online reviews, 24 out of 111 for Yahoo, and 9 out of 111 for Bing. When using the same criteria for social media sites we saw much less willingness to use these sites to search for a pediatric dentist. For social media, most parents were likely to use Google+ at 41 out of 111, followed by Facebook at 33 out of 111, Instagram at 12 out of 111, Pinterest at 10 out of 111, and Twitter at 7 out of 111.


The main focus of this study showed that first time visiting parents with private insurance were more likely to use the Internet to find a dentist.

The main focus of this study showed that first time visiting parents with private insurance were more likely to use the Internet to find a dentist. This finding is most likely multifactorial but speculations could include that participants with private insurance might have greater access to the Internet, easier access to a computer, or may be more concerned with dentists’ educational backgrounds.

Around 60% of parents used the Internet to either search for a dentist or pediatric oral health information, while social media use was much lower. Google was the most popular Internet search engine and Google+ was the most popular social media network. These results should be interesting to dental health-care providers because it shows where caregivers go to find their pediatric dentist. These findings allow dental professionals to target their advertising to attract new business. It appears that advertisements on Google or Google+ should reach the largest audience.

This information is also useful for educators and social service agencies. It’s important to determine where it’s best to disseminate oral health information in order to reach the largest possible population. It appears that Google is the best place to put the information, followed by WebMD.

Another positive finding of the study was that over 90% of children seen had some type of dental insurance. Having dental insurance allows children to have access to proper dental care and alleviates some of the financial burden for parents. Children who are insured receive proper oral health care, which helps prevent oral infection and pain and allows them to establish a dental home.


First-time visiting parents with private insurance were more likely to use the Internet to find a dentist. Around 60% of parents used the Internet to either search for a dentist or pediatric oral health information, and most parents did not use social media sites for the same tasks. Google was the most popular way to search for a pediatric dentist and oral health information.

Overall the study was a success. Recommendations for future studies include getting a larger sample size, including more sample locations, and streamlining the distribution of the surveys.

This article first appeared in DE's Expert Tips & Tricks. To receive enlightening and helpful practice management articles in this e-newsletter twice a month, visit

James Musselwhite is a second year pediatric dental resident at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. John H. Unkel, DDS, is board certified in pediatric dentistry, and is with Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Clark Morris, DDS, completed his pediatric dentistry residency training at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital of Richmond, Virginia, and is a member of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry currently working at Carolina Pediatric Dentistry.

The authors wish to thank Judy Reinhartz, PhD, Dennis Reinhartz, PhD, and Benji Djeukeng, PhD, for their support.

1. Morris C. Caregiver Utilization of Internet and Social Media Regarding Child Oral Health: A Pilot Study. Bon Secours Pediatric Dental Associates. 2015
2. Perrin A, Duggan M. “American’s Internet Access: 2000-2015.”
3. Morahan-Martin J. CyberPsychology and Behavior. October 2004, 7(5): 497-510
4. Dickerson S. et al. Use for Health Information at Three Urban Primary Care Clinics. Journal of American Medical Informatics Association 2004; 11(6):499-504
5. Fox S, Duggan M. “Pew Forum: Health Online 2013”
6. Cline RJW, Haynes KM. Consumer Health Information Seeking on the Internet: The State of the Art. Health Education Research: Theory and Practice 2001; 16(6):671-692
7. Benigeri M, Pluye P. Shortcomings of Health Information on the Internet. Health Promotion International 2003; 18(4):381-386
8. Thidst CB. Social Media in Healthcare: Connect, Communicate, Collaborate. 2010. Health Administration Press Chicago Il, p 1

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