Part I: Internet Literacy and Credibility - How Adult and Children are Using Online Information


Thanks to introductions by other educators, I was able to connect with Andrew Flanagin and Miriam Metzger, two professors at the University of California Santa Barbara, who have been doing research around Internet literacy and credibility for more than a decade now. They are just wrapping up a study supported by the MacArthur Foundation about how adults and children are using online information. They’ll be publishing their findings soon in a book published by MIT Press, but in this interview they give some of the highlights of this groundbreaking work.

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What’s interesting about this study — aside from the fact they surveyed almost 3,000 children age 11-18, as well as one of each of the children’s parents– is that it’s the first systematic look at how kids take in online information as well as how they assess it for credibility.

Because it’s a long interview based on a meaty study, we broke this article into two parts. Part I – Who We Are Online gives some background on the researchers, who the researchers interviewed, online behaviors and used of virtual worlds, and how the “digital divide” played into the results.

Part II – How We React to Online Info talks about parent/kid confidence in their abilities to navigate online content, what markers or signs they use to determine content is good, and recommendations by the researchers on how to teach Critical Thinking.


Ok, please give me a brief description of yourself — how you got into this field and what a typical day is like for you?

[Andrew]: Before becoming a researcher, I worked as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and consultant. My job was to diagnose and solve information- or knowledge-related problems within organizations, typically by developing some kind of technical solution that required sharing information across people and distances.

I liked the problem-solving part of the job, and enjoyed building technical solutions, but what really fascinated me was the social side of technologies – for example, how relations among people evolved when different technologies were introduced, what problems arose in the implementation of new systems, and the social dynamics of communication and information-sharing. Unfortunately, that part was only a footnote to the job. So, I quit, and found a career where the social side of technologies was the focus and not just an afterthought. Now, I research and teach about how technologies shape and extend what people do, and I focus on processes of organizing and information sharing and evaluation.

I don’t have a typical day, which is also a plus. I spend most of my time conducting original empirical research, usually through surveys and experiments, analyzing data and writing publications from this work, working with students in various ways, and a ridiculous amount of time dealing with the administrative just so I can do these things.

[Miriam]: I have always been interested in how our use of the media affects what we think, feel, and do. As inhabitants of the modern world, we are both enveloped and immersed in media, and the messages that travel through them, so how can they not affect us? At the same time, however, I am struck by human resilience to these messages. I got into this field in order to understand how people incorporate the media into their lives, and how the media influence our decision-making processes.

Like Andrew, I, too, have a lot of variety in my days. A typical day usually holds many meetings with colleagues, research assistants, and students; teaching a class or two; and trying to keep the flood of email from engulfing me. I must admit that becoming a parent myself a few years ago added to my interest in studying how kids interact with and on the Internet.

I. Background Info from the Study

· One thing that was interesting to see was the age at which kids start using the Internet, and then, how frequently they use it. I remember thinking especially among the older ones — hey, that’s a whole part-time afterschool job’s worth of time! How frequently are kids online? And what are their parents doing about it when it occurs?

Kids between 11 and 18 years old average nearly 14 hours per week online, not including using email or using the Internet during school hours. There is, however, quite a lot of variation, with two-thirds of kids in our study spending somewhere between 1 and 26 hours online. Very few kids in our sample spent less than 1 hour or more than 26 hours online. We also found that the amount of time kids spend online increases with age: 11 year olds in our sample reported spending an average of about 8 hours per week online, but the 18 year olds in the sample spent twice as much time online per week on average.

Interestingly, 75% of the parents in our study say report that they control their child’s access to the Internet in some way. We found that, of those who control their child’s access, 71% do so by placing the computer in a certain location in the home in order to monitor their child’s online activity, 57% limit the web sites their child can visit, 55% limit the amount of time their child can go online, and 25% report controlling their child’s Internet access in some “other” way. Also, parental control of their child’s access to the Internet occurs much more with younger children, as one might expect. For example, while 94% of parents of 11 year olds report controlling their child’s Internet use, only 45% of parents of 18 year olds report doing so.

· Can you comment on the trends you saw and what parents’ level of involvement was for these kids using the Internet? Are parents talking with kids about credibility online?

We found it interesting that most parents (84%) reported that they talk at least occasionally with their children about whether the information on the Internet is trustworthy, with 45% reporting talking with their child “sometimes,” 31% reporting talking with their child “often,” and 8% saying they talk with their child “very often.” Moreover, about two-thirds of parents reported that they sit with their children while they go online, either “sometimes” (47%), or “often” to “very often” (16%). The percentage of parents who sit with their children while they are online, however, decreases with the age of the children, with a majority of parents of 11 year olds sitting with their children “often” or “sometimes,” while a majority of parents of 17-18 year olds report doing this “rarely” to “never.”

We were a bit surprised, and yet quite pleased, to see this amount of engagement between parents and their kids with regard to talking about the credibility on online information. So much of adults’ fears surrounding kids use of the Internet stem from the idea that kids are surfing the web entirely on their own, without guidance from or even awareness by adults, but our findings contradict this image especially for younger children.

· In your study you looked at what kinds of things kids were doing online (social networking, sharing videos or music, researching) — were you surprised by anything you found there and did these activities have anything to do with a child’s assessment of online information?

At the most general level, we found that kids are using the web for all kinds of purposes, including homework, social networking, playing games, viewing video, even shopping among other things. While most web uses like sharing videos and music, using social networking sites, and posting photos, stories, or videos online increased with age, we noticed these activities pretty much leveled off by about age 15.

Contrary to popular perceptions, children show a tendency to visit virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft slightly less often as they grow older. In fact, our data suggest that, on average, children’s use of the web for visiting virtual worlds is not only fairly low (kids indicated that for the most part they use the web in this way “never” or “rarely”), but that this low usage is consistent across age.

The strongest predictors of heavy use of online virtual worlds were overall hours online per week, sex (with girls more likely to engage in virtual uses, contrary to popular conceptions of boys being more avid gamers), Internet skill, and age. Interestingly, kids who used the Internet more for visiting virtual worlds tended to rely on group processes more in making credibility assessments, perhaps because of their greater involvement and comfort in virtual communities. Also, these kids had been taught at some point about credibility issues online, tended to get good grades, and had been online a long time. These results certainly contradict the stereotype of socially isolated loners who take refuge in online virtual worlds.

We also found that older children were more likely to be heavier users of social networks, as were more skilled users, girls, and those who spent more time online per week. Children who earned lower grades in school and had less parental control of their Internet access and use also showed higher use of social networking sites. In addition, those who were heavier social network users tended to rely on group (or social) processes to discern credibility, and tended to evaluate the credibility of online information less rigorously.

Finally, our results suggest that as children get older they become more active web participants, in the sense of generating content online, although it should be noted that information contribution remains rare overall in this age group, with average contributions of even older children not quite reaching even a level of doing so “rarely.” Nonetheless, sharing information in various ways (via personal web sites, blogs, or journals; posting information to groups or others; or rating people or things online) is indicative of one of the most notable features of the Internet—its ability to enable information consumers to simultaneously be information providers, a behavior that appears to increase slightly during childhood.

There was some indication that actively participating in web content creation affected how kids evaluated online content in terms of its credibility. For example, we found that kids who contributing information online more relied to a greater extent on others to help discern credible information online. This makes sense, of course, as kids who participate in these sorts of online activities would be likely to have a larger and more (inter)active social circle to which to turn to for advice and guidance while online.

II. Credibility and Background

One thing that was surprising to me was the lack of “digital divide” in children’s responses to whether they found Internet information credible, though you did have a finding about race affecting perceptions of credibility for the content. Can you talk about that, as well as the general demographic makeup of the kids and adults in the study?

We surveyed 2,747 parent-child pairs. Parents in the sample were 45 years old on average, and 53% had at least some college education, while 47% had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Racial groups in our sample closely matched U.S. Census data, and household annual income ranged from less than $5,000 to more than $175,000, with an average income of between $60,000-$85,000. Most families (88%) had between 3 and 5 members living in the household, and participants came from all parts of the U.S. The child respondents ranged in age from 11-18 years, with similar numbers within each age group.

Race did contribute slightly to kids’ concern about credibility. Kids who reported themselves to be minorities expressed slightly greater concern about credibility than did white children, which may reflect subcultural differences found in many surveys for trust of all sorts among minority populations. It is interesting, however, that overall demographic characteristics did not emerge as particularly important or consistent predictors of concern about the credibility of online information. This suggests that there is little evidence of a “digital divide” in children’s concern about the credibility of information available on the web.

There was also no clear evidence of a digital divide in terms of beliefs about the amount of information that is credible online or evaluations of information by kids from different demographic backgrounds. Instead, the rigor with which kids evaluate information they find online is much more important than demographic differences to their credibility beliefs and concerns.


Other posts of interest:

Adora Svitak on Critical Thinking and 21st Century Detectives

Professor Michael Eisenberg Talks Critical Thinking Today

Dr Bing: Giving Free Reign to Head and Heart

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