Kids Are Getting Better at Judging Online Content ... in Theory
12.17.09 | Elluminate social learning consultant Steve Hargadon posted a story on his blog the other day that brings the issue of credibility—this week’s Behind the Research focus—front and center. He writes:
Starting in 1917 two young girls claimed that they had taken a series of photos of themselves with actual fairies, and were publicly supported by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. The Cottingley Fairies were revealed decades later to have been a hoax, but to those of us who have grown up in a world steeped in photography and film, where we’ve seen all kinds of attempts—legitimate and otherwise—to manipulate the medium, the photos are obvious hoaxes. The lighting doesn’t seem right, there are resolution and focus issues, and we are just not taken in. What we have in the world of photography that gives us the perspective to determine truth or value we just don’t yet have in the world of social media—and that is time and experience.
Judging credibility is a tricky proposition for any of us, but young people in particular have much less of the two ingredients Hargadon says make us more skeptical: time and experience. Yet at the same time, young people are more immersed in digital media than ever before. They (and we) are mostly on their own to assess credibility in the vast sea of digital information.
How young people make those distinctions is the subject of a forthcoming study by Andrew Flanagin and Miriam Metzger, professor and associate professor, respectively, in the communication department at University of California, Santa Barbara.
The results of that study, due out in early 2010, present a complex, often contradictory, picture of how kids judge credibility, and the results challenge some mainstream assumptions about the impact of digital media on how they assess information. (Selected findings from that study are featured here.)
“A good bulk of the findings run counter to the moral panic that’s been out there that kids are so immersed in technology that they’re blind to any kinds of problems that might [arise] from information technology,” says Metzger. “Kids are skeptical of the right kinds of things,” she adds, including strangers online or the credibility of blogs.
That awareness, however, doesn’t mean they shy away from gathering information via sources they think might be questionable or biased. The perfect example of this is how they view and use Wikipedia.
After years of teachers telling them that the online encyclopedia is a dubious source because of its unedited, often anonymous, user-created content, many of the 2,747 kids between 11-18 who participated in the survey said that Wikipedia is less credible than sites like Britannica (whose content is created by experts) and Citizendium (whose content is vetted).
Yet, when entries from all three sites were presented without their brand names, the same kids placed the most faith in information pulled from Wikipedia.
“They found Wikipedia entries to be the most credible compared to the stripped-out Britannica entry,” Metzger says. “But as soon as we placed them in a Wikipedia context, they moved the credibility to the lowest position.”
While this may well seem like a programmed response, in which kids are simply parroting back what they’ve been told about Wikipedia’s credibility, it also shows they are ultimately more concerned with the perceived quality of content, rather than the context in which information is presented.
“It shows a kind of understanding of the information environment,” Flanagin says. “They recognize that the sources are different, but when the rubber meets the road, they look at the actual content, not the context.”
A similar pattern emerged when it came to assessing the broader credibility of different media types. While youth rated the internet as the most believable source of information—even ahead of books—for school work, entertainment and commercial information, they rated the internet behind newspapers and television when it came to delivering credible news. In practice, however, it remained their first method when seeking news information.
This, however, isn’t necessarily a product of the digital age. In the 1960s, as television became more pervasive in American households, newspapers were still considered the most credible news source. But, when it came to usage and reliance, the convenience of television was more important than the perception that print was more authoritative. And with that reliance came a practical belief in the credibility of the medium. The same holds true today.
“The medium people rely on tends to be the one that they find most credible,” says Metzger. “When kids are finding information, they go to the internet first.”
Along with this finding, the study shows that most kids posses a great deal of confidence in their online skills when compared with other internet users.
“Compared to their parents, they understood that their parents were better,” Metzger says. “But when compar[ing] themselves to ‘typical’ users, even 11-year-olds felt that they were better.”
It’s a result that Flanagin finds somewhat troubling, in that it may demonstrate a false comfort with their ability to sort good information from bad—something that is underscored when kids reported they found both online health and entertainment information to be of equal credibility.
“Clearly that suggests there’s a suboptimal degree of skepticism regarding health information,” Flanagin says. “There are a lot of ways to interpret that; it’s not good news in some fashion because [health and entertainment information] have different consequences. I don’t care about what Britney Spears did this week, but health information could be highly consequential at the end of the day.”
A positive sign, however, was the indication that adults were playing a positive role in helping kids develop a healthy skepticism about online content. The survey found that 73 percent of youth have received some form of training, and the majority of parents talked to their children about whether to trust information on the web.
In addition, formal information literacy training from teachers, librarians and parents has apparently had an effect, as only 10 percent of those surveyed were fooled when presented with hoax sites—one concerning male pregnancy, the other about a fictitious rodent known as the Rennet.
Ultimately, Metzger says, parents are doing pretty well. They are aware of what their children are up to and talking to them about areas of concern.
As they await incoming data from a comparative study of adults who were asked the same questions, Metzger and Flanagin say that the story of youth and credibility is one in which young people sometimes have their own internal skeptics operating, and at other times, not so much.
According to Metzger, this means that there is cause for concern, but not for panic. Meanwhile, both she and Flanagin are encouraged by the way in which kids are paying attention to the right kinds of clues and have decided to apply different standards to different types of information. And at the end of the day, the pair believe, the digital age isn’t changing the skills required to assess credibility, it is only exacerbating the need to develop them.
“People still learn to be skeptical in they ways that they always have. They have a bad experience or are told to be skeptical,” Flanagin says. “Parents tell you to be careful when you walk across the street. It’s the same thing.”
The full report will be available in early 2010 as part of the MacArthur Series on Digital Media and Learning, published by MIT Press.
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