With current research suggesting that many young people don't question the information they find online, a new study in the Journal of Children and Media reveals the factors that are most likely to predict they will.
Miriam Metzger and her colleagues measured the awareness and skill in evaluating the credibility of online information of nearly 3000 children aged 11-18 in three distinct ways -- one of which involved viewing a 'hoax' website.
Their results confirmed that certain developmental and demographic characteristics can make young people more effective information evaluators. "Older children … reported using more analytic credibility evaluation strategies, including being more aware of credibility as a potential problem of online information, and were less likely to believe the hoax sites compared to younger children," they observed. "As children mature, they become more sophisticated information consumers and are better able to use contextual cues to evaluate information."
The researchers also discovered that young people's 'cognitive styles' had an effect on how they evaluated information. "Across all outcomes except believing the hoax websites, the thinking style variables -- including need for cognition, flexible thinking, and faith in intuition -- emerged as the strongest predictors of young people's awareness of credibility problems and information evaluation skill," they observe.
"Being open to various and conflicting perspectives and liking to think hard about problems led to higher reported use of more effortful credibility evaluation tactics, while faith in intuition and trusting others led young people to be more trusting of online information."
As might be expected, academic performance was also associated with children's heavier use of analytic credibility evaluation strategies; however, other factors, like family income, had little impact.
But when it came to exploring the effect of formal training in the evaluation of online information, the authors discovered that contrary to what they expected, "youth who reported having been exposed more to online credibility evaluation training were also more likely to believe the hoax sites, even as they were more likely also to use analytic evaluation strategies." This surprising finding suggests that although training can help children evaluate material, it doesn't necessarily mean they will, or that they will do it effectively.
This study provides important insight into how even 'digital natives' can have difficulties in their own environment. It should also empower educators and parents to make children aware, from an early age, of the need to be critical consumers of information, as well as to provide them with the appropriate guidance.
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