Kids and Online Information Credibility: Latest Research Findings

Mon, Jun 21, 2010

Research Findings

Do you want to know how well young people navigate the “ocean of information” that is available online?  Then read  highlights from the latest findings (which are a part of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning).  We think you will be surprised by the results.

The report, “Kids and Credibility: An Empirical Examination of Youth, Digital Media Use, and Information Credibility,” is the first large-scale survey to examine “children’s online information-seeking strategies and their beliefs about the credibility of that information.”  The authors, Andrew Flanagin (Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California) and Miriam Metzger (Associate Professor also in the Dept of Communication at the University of California), conducted a web-based survey of 2,747 children, ages 11 to 18, and their parents.

The findings are due to be published in book-form in August 2010, but  are also “published openly online (as well as in print) in order to support broad dissemination and to stimulate further research in the field” (p. vii. of the Report): see The MIT Press site.

The report, which is the “first systematic survey of youth designed to assess their information-seeking strategies and beliefs across a wide variety of media and information types,” notes that ”there is a tension between young people’s technical and social immersion with digital media and their relatively limited development and life experience compared to adults” (p.ix).  Key findings include:

Regarding Children’s Internet Use

  • The “vast majority of children begin using the Internet between second and sixth grades, with a majority of kids online by third grade.  Nearly all kids (97%) are online by the eighth grade.”  On average, 11 year-olds spend 8 hours weekly on the Internet, rising to 16 hours per week for 18-year-olds” (p.x).
  • The most important general uses of the Internet include social networking, virtual usage (e.g. gaming), and information contribution (e.g. sharing files, creating personal Web sites, blogs, journals).
  • Children, even 11-year-olds, believe they are highly skilled Internet users.
  • 75% of parents control their child’s access and use of the Internet in some way (e.g. placing the computer in a certain location, limiting site access, limiting time spent on the Internet).  As children get older, parental oversight decreases.

Children’s Perceptions of Information Credibility

  • While young people are concerned about credibility on the Internet, 89% report that “some” to “a lot” of information is believable (p.xi).
  • Concern about credibility could arise from the fact that 73% of children have received some form of information literacy training, and the majority of parents report that they talk to their kids about whether to trust Internet information (p.xii).
  • One-third of children reported that they, or someone they know, had a bad experience due to false information found on the Internet.  Nearly two-thirds said they had heard a news report about someone who had a bad experience because of false information online.
  • Given a number of options, children rated the Internet as the “most believable source of information for schoolwork, entertainment, and commercial information … children report that the Internet is a more credible source of information for school papers or projects than books” (p.xii).
  • Kids are not very trusting of blogs, but they do find Wikipedia to be somewhat believable.
  • Young people are appropriately skeptical of trusting strangers or people they meet online.  (Now that is heartening news.)
  • While most kids take the idea that they should be concerned about credibility seriously (by invoking a systematic and analytic approach), many also exhibit a less rigorous approach to actually evaluating the information they find online.
  • There was no clear evidence of a “digital divide” in terms of the credibility beliefs and evaluations of kids from different demographic backgrounds.

Child/Parent Dyads and Credibility Assessments

  • Parents believe they are more adept at assessing credibility online than their children, and children generally share this assessment (until they get older).
  • Children (as young as 11) and adults both believe they are better equipped to discern information credibility than the average user.

Children’s Web site Exposure and Evaluation

  • A majority of children displayed an appropriate level of skeptism when presented with hoax Web sites, although 10% still believed hoax sites either “a lot” or “a whole lot” (p.xiv).
  • The actual source of an online encyclopedia entry (i.e., Wikipedia, Citizendium, or Encyclopaedia Britannica) was irrelevant to how credible the entry was found to be by kids. However, when the content of another site was placed on the Wikipedia site, kids felt that content was less believable, and when a Wikipedia entry was placed on another encyclopedia site, it was seen as more believable.  In other words, while children find the content of Wikipedia to be most credible, they find the context of Wikipedia as an information resource to be relatively low in credibility.  Humm … sounds like a good topic for discussion in the classroom.

Implications

  • Findings from this study “reveal a relationship between youth, the Internet, and credibility that is far more nuanced than previous research has suggested” (p. 108).
  • Based on the findings, the authors suggest that online media literacy programs should emphasize a structured but graduated approach to guiding children’s use of the Internet, which stresses the accumulation of personal experience online, early parental involvement, and the sharing of positive and negative online experiences at an early age.  Curricula should be developed with these factors in mind, and should be assessed in terms of developmental and experiential differences among children” (pgs.108-9).
  • Educational efforts regarding credibility evaluation should be ongoing, and should be targeted at youth with varying experience and skill levels in order to remain relevant.  Quite different approaches appear warranted for younger vs. older children and for those with lower vs. higher online experience and skill (p.109).  In other words, a “one size fits all” approach is not going to work.

Conclusion

  • Children’s relation to digital media with regard to credibility is significantly more nuanced than the approaches we have generally heard to-date: Either the “children are substantially more tech-savvy than adult and therefore superior in their use of digital media” or children are “universally vulnerable and therefore in need of constant protection” (p.111).
  • The reality seems to be that children are “for the most part aware of the issues surrounding information verity on the Internet and appear generally capable of making informed and appropriate decisions in this regard” (p.111).
  • The best strategy to help children become more skillful Internet information consumers would appear to be from a perspective that empowers them and capitalizes on their unique upbringing in an all-digital world” (p.111).

Our Editorial:  It is encouraging to see that kids are better able to make decisions about information credibility than we might suspect. However, they are still vulnerable and need adults, whose brains are more developed in critical thinking and who have a greater wealth of life experiences, to spend time with them and guide them in the learned skill of evaluating the credibility of information, in an age-appropriate level.  

We would be really interested in hearing about how these findings relate to what you see your own students doing.  Are the findings similar, or widely different?  Email us at askdoctorwalker@cox.net and let us know.

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